E. coli, listeria, salmonella, mad cow disease -- the possible threats to consumers from the foods they eat are many. As a result of huge media flaps over recent incidences of food-borne illnesses, retailers find themselves trying to plan marketing strategies for the next millennium while avoiding impalement on the horns of a food-safety dilemma.
The paradox is this: How does an operator provide meal-hungry customers with more ready-to-eat, ready-to-heat foods while preventing food-borne illnesses in kitchens, meat, seafood and deli cases now burdened with a wider variety of products -- that include "meals" in cooked, semi-cooked and raw states, increasing opportunities for bacterial growth, cross-contamination and spoilage?
"It would only take one death caused by food-borne illness to close a supermarket," said Karla Ruzicka, chief of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Seafood Inspection Division's National Training Branch.
"In this day and age it is vital for stores to address food safety from the bottom up, starting with knowing the condition of perishable products they bring in from suppliers, to every aspect of the way the products are handled in the store, right up through educating customers how to handle the products when they get them home," said Ruzicka.
Good, Safe Food
"Food safety is one of our biggest concerns," said Carol Moore, retail food-service manager of Mustard Seed Cafe & Market in Akron, Ohio. "We have a lot going on in our kitchen."
The kitchen is really two side-by-side kitchens with two distinct staffs, one for prepared foods sold in the store and restaurant, the other for off-premises catering.
In her three years at Mustard Seed, Moore has watched the staff grow from herself and one employee to include a food-production manager in the deli-catering kitchen and his six employees, two people in corporate catering and one person for grab-and-go sandwiches.
"We're a natural-foods store and our ingredient standards are very high. Sanitation in our kitchens is key to us, because we want our good food to be safe," said Moore. "We have good systems and procedures in place here."
Besides store guidelines for sanitation and food-handling procedures that include attention to food temperature and separation of raw from cooked products, Mustard Seed recently adopted a "red-bucket" approach.
"We instituted red buckets in the kitchen and deli. They contain sanitizing solution and they're red so everyone knows what's in there," Moore explained. "We always have this sanitizing solution on hand and we keep everything clean."
Signs and posters all around the work area remind staff about sanitation, including hand washing. If they can't get to the sink right away, never mind. The store provides a waterless hand cleaner.
"We have Purel available everywhere. It's an instant hand sanitizer. I even have it on my desk. It's not intended to be a 100% replacement for hand-washing, but it's great for most uses," Moore said. "When I'm helping with catering, if I even rub my nose with the back of my hand, I immediately use it or wash my hands."
She provides gloves for staff, but makes sure they know "gloves are not a substitute for cleanliness. They can still cross-contaminate if the gloves are not changed regularly."
Chris Gogos, catering manager of Morton Williams Associated Supermarkets in New York, said good systems and guidelines are necessary, but if retailers are serious about food safety, they must provide employees with proper tools that reflect the changing focus of supermarkets.
"When I came here, I saw the blueprints for the new store. It was designed by a supermarket designer who was not familiar with food service," Gogos said. "It didn't fit the federal government requirements for food service."
Gogos said the risks of not doing it right are tremendous, recalling a "big-shot chef" from a New York hotel who "got in trouble four times -- four events, four times people got food poisoning in one year."
The chef, a personal friend of Gogos', knew how to handle food, but his under-chefs were not properly trained and the restaurant equipment was not up to the job.
"You can't cut meat in an open room; it must be cold. And you can't cut salads and fruits in the same room. You will get cross-contamination," he said.
Gogos requested two cold rooms, one for raw meat and fish and the other for other cold foods. He got them.
"Some stores, like Morton Williams, don't mind investing a great deal of money" for safety, said Gogos, who worked as an executive chef before going into retail. "They did it here."
"Hot food is a totally different procedure," he added, saying the law requires hot foods to be cooled to specified temperatures in the shortest possible time.
"If you cool down 10 pounds of beef stew in six hours, that's unsatisfactory," said Gogos. "Besides, if you chill it quickly, you extend the shelf life by days."
For cooling, he bought pans "no deeper than 6 inches," which can be plunked into an ice bath to cool contents quickly.
"If you put the beef stew in buckets and put them in the cooler, they'll still be boiling the next day," Gogos warns. "Only then they'll be boiling with salmonella."
He also added to the store design a separate freezer for frozen seafood and two additional refrigerators for separating cold raw and prepared foods.
Additional capital expenditures that Gogos recommends to keep the supermarket kitchen safe include:
Ice machine. To provide plenty of ice for cooling hot foods and keeping ice cases supplied.
Sinks. "They must be bigger than the pots in order to wash them properly. They must have three compartments: wash, rinse and sanitize. The rinse must have a little bleach in the hot water. The sanitizing sink contains a solution made from bleach where you dip the dishes to kill bacteria."
Floors. "Washable floors that won't be slippery when wet are very expensive, but great."
Shoes. "Cooks must have non-slip shoes for wet floors. Before the floors are washed, they get grease on them, so non-slip shoes are important."
Hot water. "Water must be near-boiling, then you're safe. We always need buckets with solutions of bleach and rags to wipe cutting boards, counters and equipment down so the bacteria won't grow," said Gogos. "Every department, every station. That's how you maintain cleanliness and control bacteria. Those bacteria grow really fast."
Regulators as Friends
Another preventive measure Gogos recommends costs no money at all: "Listen to the health inspectors. We always pass with flying colors, but if you talk to the inspectors, you can always learn something. It's often doctors who represent the health department."
Cas Tryba, food-safety manager for Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., agrees that retailers should listen to regulators. He used to be one.
"I was a health inspector for 14 years," said Tryba. "It's much more challenging here. As a regulator, things are black and white. Here we read the law and try to figure out the best method to deal with it."
In his six years with Big Y, Tryba has watched the number of stores grow from 30 to 45 throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts. He has seen the stores change from "grocery stores to world-class markets with prepared foods, rotisserie chicken, pizza, meat loaf -- a food court with a TV set and lots of people sitting down for lunch, or getting supper or lunch to go."
There's no doubt that there are more challenges now to protecting the integrity of food, said Tryba, who's willing to enlist all the help he can in his pursuit of safety.
"I ask our local health inspectors in to speak to our staff at seminars on food safety," he said. "We partner with regulatory officials as much as we can. Connecticut state officials came and used our facility to train their inspectors in HACCP."
As might be expected, Tryba's standard operating procedures for Big Y spell out specific sanitation procedures, including how often to clean, the wearing of gloves to avoid all bare-hand contact with food, and how often to change gloves.
Tryba avoids cross-contamination through separate areas for raw and ready-to-eat foods, separate coolers for raw and ready, and separate sets of cutting boards. He uses blast chillers to lower food temperatures quickly.
Periodically, Tryba swabs surfaces and sends the sample for testing at independent labs. Thermometers are ubiquitous. Temperatures of hot foods are taken every two hours.
"We cycle-bake and cycle-cook so the food is not being held out there all day," he said.
In addition to inspections by outside regulators, Tryba conducts internal audits he describes as "inspections like health inspections -- only more detailed. We look at temperatures, cross-contamination, cleanliness, sanitation and personal hygiene."
Department managers also inspect their own departments regularly, and managers inspect each other's departments periodically.
Turnover of part-timers offers a challenge to such an intensive program, so Big Y spends a lot of time and money on training.
"We have a minimum criteria," said Tryba. "We require new people to read material, watch a video and answer questions.
"We're always looking for improvement," Tryba added.
Many stores and chains are adopting the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point continuous-inspection system designed to ensure food safety by analyzing the hazards of food production, identifying points where hazards can be controlled and documenting each step to be sure it is taken and can be proven.
HACCP plans ideally should be prepared by involving all employees, to give them ownership in the process, say experts. The plans always include a detailed section that covers all sanitation procedures.
Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., and Harry's Farmers Markets, Atlanta, are two chains that instituted HACCP storewide. Carl Salamone of Wegmans said that although the chain advertises its HACCP system, it's not a marketing tool, it's a consumer-confidence builder.
"We did it because it's the right thing to do," said Salamone. "We did it for our customers."
Steve Lange, HACCP director for Harry's in Atlanta, admitted implementing HACCP storewide is a challenge, but added that "Once you do it, you'll wonder how you lived without it."
Big Y's Tryba is a member of the Food Marketing Institute's Food Safety Committee, which is developing an HACCP pilot program that is "almost ready to test in our stores for five different processes. FMI is looking for a generic HACCP program for retail," he explained.
"The models are developed and under final review, and we'll now apply them in real stores," he added.
Tryba said he is a firm believer in the principles of HACCP and believes the Food and Drug Administration will make HACCP mandatory for retailers in the near future.
However, he also said that "strict, purist regulatory HACCP involves too much paperwork and documentation. One size does not fit all with HACCP, but an individual program based on the generic principles is a great idea."
At Home and on Top
The best efforts by stores to guarantee the safety of food products can be destroyed by ill-informed consumers when they take products home.
Morton Williams hired a special food consultant to program its computers with the ingredients in all its prepared foods so store personnel can print labels with detailed ingredient information and specific directions for handling and reheating.
"The only thing we didn't do was include the nutritional value. That was too expensive," said Gogos. "But by the year 2000 or a little after, we'll be ready for that."
The stores with the most successful HACCP or other food-safety programs seem to have one thing in common: total support from the corner office.
"Our commitment comes right from the top, from the owner of the store," said Tryba. "I get great support from upper management, and if upper management is committed, the program works.
"Freshness and quality matter," said Tryba. "That's the key. But if you just give lip service to food safety, you're not doing anything."