Mention food safety and retailers recite a long list of programs, training and technical procedures they use to protect the food they sell. The roster includes a large number of policies geared specifically toward store-level associates in fresh-foods departments.
Consumer-focused initiatives have been limited mostly to more passive, educational measures like pamphlet displays or signage.
It's only been recently that retailers have begun promoting the idea that consumers themselves can contribute to their own safety -- if they have access to protection while they shop.
A growing number of operators are looking to empower the consumer by providing items like plastic bags to wrap drippy packages in the meat department or paper towels to wipe down carts in the front entrance.
Retailers who've embarked on such programs say the equipment is easy to put in, simple to use and especially easy to maintain -- supermarket companies usually have service agreements with suppliers and manufacturers.
An added benefit is that customers notice these small touches. During a recent visit to one of the larger units in the Quincy, Ill.-based Niemann Foods chain, Todd Peter struck up a conversation with a shopper to get a sense of her impressions of the store. When he asked her what she disliked, she mentioned the missing paper-towel dispenser at the entrance.
"That towel dispenser was one thing that she related to as a point of differentiation in our store," Peter told SN. "It isn't a big thing to most, but to certain people it can be so important. It can mean the difference between shopping with us or shopping somewhere else."
About two years ago, the retailer began installing center-pull towel dispensers for customers to use to wipe off shopping carts at the front of stores, "more as a customer convenience than a safety issue," said Peter, the director of perishables for the independent, which operates more than 40 stores under the County Market, Cub Foods and Sav-A-Lot banners.
But the convenience factor was quickly eclipsed by safety concerns. The retailer reviewed consumer surveys stating people liked the idea of paper towels for use after handling meats, so Niemann added dispensers in there as well.
"There's absolutely no risk on the retailer's end," Peter said. "It's only a supply expense [for paper towels]. Most manufacturers will do the maintenance and provide the equipment at no additional charge."
Paper towels are so widely used today that Niemann is upgrading the system. The company is looking at battery-powered "wave-and-dry" dispensers, which can be cost-effective since they control the quantity of paper used, and sanitary, since they are touchless, a supplier told SN.
"The whole thing is being driven by the customer's need to feel safe in the store environment," said Russ Mayberry, merchandising consultant for Niemann's supplier, Bunzl USA, headquartered in St. Louis. "Customers recognize the fact that paper towels are there and they use them. It's become more of a necessity than a convenience."
The retailer also is working with Bunzl to roll out antibacterial gel dispensers in the meat departments. The company has a small unit mounted on a meat case in one of the stores, dispensing gel that contains both a pathogen-killing agent and lanolin to prevent skin from drying, Mayberry said.
"If somebody gets blood or fluid on their hands, they can use this on their hands," he said. "It's a good way to help keep from spreading germs."
Paper towels and plastic bags are nothing new in the meat departments at Farm Fresh stores, based in Virginia Beach, Va. Customers expect those extra touches.
One service that sets Farm Fresh apart from rivals is seen up front. When shoppers go through the checkout lines, they get special treatment. Baggers wrap each package of meat in brown kraft paper, keeping different species of meat separate, a spokeswoman for the retailer told SN.
"It's done to prevent cross contamination," said Susan Mayo, noting the meat-wrapping practice is just one part of the company's comprehensive food-safety initiative.
The service required Farm Fresh to outfit all 37 supermarkets with rollers and kraft paper, she said. Farm Fresh started wrapping the meats at the front end nearly two years ago. "It's a daily standard," Mayo said.
Associates who work the registers keep sanitizing solution and paper towels out in the open, and clean conveyor belts regularly.
Farm Fresh's approach recognizes consumers are on top of food-safety issues, and watching for cleanliness, Mayo said. "Consumers are very smart," she said. "You have to look at your stores through a customer's lens. We need to do everything possible to make things as safe as possible for our customers."
Everybody knows what salmonella and E. coli 0157:H7 are -- public awareness of foodborne illnesses and product recalls, here and around the globe, has never been greater. Many consumers have firsthand experience with illness -- the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, estimates 76 million cases of foodborne disease occur each year, with about 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.
When consumers buy food, they want assurances that their local stores are going the extra mile to offer safe food. It makes sense, then, for retailers to encourage consumers to use the tools at their disposal and to put the cleaning fluids, towels, bags and gels in plain view.
"I think it's an excellent idea," said Dion Lerman, education and training director for the Handwashing Leadership Forum, a Libertyville, Ill.-based alliance of companies concerned with increasing the use of handwashing and gloving to enhance food safety. Based in Philadelphia, Lerman trains restaurant and food-service management company employees in safe practices.
Lerman said he's observed an increasing emphasis on cleanliness and cross-contamination prevention in supermarkets -- in a few stores, he's even seen hand-washing sinks for consumers in meat departments. He'd like to see more sinks, ideally with touch-free faucets, stocked with hot running water, soap, paper towels and clean towel-disposal fixtures.
"The [hand-sanitizing] gels are good products, but they're no substitute for hand-washing," he said. "You need to get that stuff off your hands."
Supermarkets that go the extra mile with visible and obvious safety enhancements convey concern for the well-being of their customers, while those that don't potentially send a negative message -- "at best, the supermarket is behind the curve and, at worst, they really don't care," said Lerman, who is also a Certified Food Service Professional.
"In reality, it's more of a perception issue," he said. "As we know, perception is nine-tenths of reality."
Progressive retailers know it's just good business to offer consumers the extra service, often at minimal cost to them.
Consumers find plastic bag dispensers available in the meat departments at Costco Warehouse clubs. Printed on the bags are suggested cooking temperatures for safe consumption of the various meats.
"The meat managers love them, along with our members," Craig Wilson, assistant vice president of food safety and quality assurance for Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco, told SN. "Our members expect an absolutely excellent shopping experience and that's all part of it. If people have an excellent shopping experience and don't have food-safety issues, it certainly helps create loyalty."