LAKELAND, Fla. — For retailers, food safety is often a matter of training workers how to handle and store food properly. And few retailers do that as rigorously and comprehensively as Publix Super Markets here, winner of SN’s 2011 Food Safety Innovation Award.
Knowledge of food safety best practices is not something that most retail employees come by naturally. So Publix has taken it upon itself to offer various forms of training to all of its roughly 148,000 associates (as Publix calls employees), at both the hourly and staff level, across its 1,038 supermarkets, manufacturing facilities (two bakery plants, three dairy plants and a deli plant), distribution centers and headquarters. Training completion rates consistently average above 90%.
“Food safety is who we are, it’s our culture,” said Maria Brous, Publix’s director of media and community relations, who has received training in food safety and taught the subject during her 21-year career at the chain. Publix also believes in sharing food safety practices with other retailers. “At the end of the day, anytime there is a food safety incident anywhere, it affects the whole industry,” she said.
For hourly associates, basic food safety training begins soon after they are hired in the form of a computer-based-training (CBT) program launched in 2009. Developed by Publix’s own education and training department, the CBT program also covers customer service as well as topics geared to an employee’s job class. Last year, 48,000 new associates went through the program.
The areas within food safety covered by the CBT program, said Brous, include holding temperatures, temperature danger zones, handling of hot and cold foods, cross-contamination, sanitation and pest control.
In addition to CBT, Publix has long offered what it calls “Job Class Training.” Given by “coaches” (such as store managers, assistant managers or even peers), this program covers “specific skill sets needed to perform job duties,” as well as food safety and customer service, said Brous. “Associates are asked to explain each process” to demonstrate their understanding.
More than a decade ago, Publix decided that “Food Manager Certification” would be obtained by all Publix staff members, whether directly or indirectly involved with food handling, from Chief Executive Officer Ed Crenshaw to meat cutters; recertification would be required every five years. Staff associates can obtain certification via 1.5 days of classroom instruction (for first-time certification) led by certified Publix instructors, and get recertified via CBT. Based on Food Marketing Institute’s SuperSafeMark program, food-safety certification topics include pest control, foodborne illnesses, product rotation, cleanliness, the distance of shelving from the floor, food storage and salad-bar management.
In 2010, more than 3,500 associates received or renewed Food Manager Certification. Brous herself was recently recertified. “There’s no better example of our commitment [to food safety] than that we have our executives participate in training,” she said. “If our responsibility is to support retail or address customers, then we have to have the same knowledge base.” Once staff members are certified, “we go back to our stores and departments and share that information with associates,” she said.
Certifications are kept on file in case they are needed during inspections. Some managers hang their certifications in their stores, prompting questions from customers. “We talk to customers about our efforts to train folks in food safety,” said Brous.
Posters to Remember
For associates in manufacturing plants and DCs, Publix in 2008 developed a food safety behavior program called Prevention Plus. It contains some of the same instruction points as the store-based programs, such as sanitation, personal hygiene and equipment, combining hands-on training and CBT. The program also includes informational posters placed in work and break areas that change monthly. “We try to make them clever so people will remember,” said Brous. “Seeing it several times per day helps reinforce it.” One poster on handwashing says, “What do you mean I need to wash my hands?”
In 2009, in addition to rolling out Prevention Plus, Publix leveraged information from the Food and Drug Administration’s Oral Communications Project and from an online resource called Food Safety Infosheets to develop a “Basic Behaviors” program for retail stores. Under this program, Publix again created monthly posters to make points about proper food safety practices, such as “Never work with food when you’re sick” and “Which clean cutting board would you like to see your food on?” Some of these are also displayed in the Prevention Plus manufacturing-plant program.
Internal audits and regulatory inspections of stores and DCs are used to vet the effectiveness of food safety training. For over a decade the chain has partnered with Steritech, Charlotte, which conducts unannounced, quarterly food safety assessments based on the FDA’s Model Food Code.
Publix also collaborates with universities on food safety projects. For example, the company worked with the University of Florida on an RFID system used to track produce through the supply chain and on improving the food safety of seafood. Publix is an advisory board member with the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety and the USF School of Public Health.
In another food safety initiative, the chain helped to develop — and remains an active supporter of — the GS1 Rapid Recall Exchange, the online service created by FMI and GS1 US to facilitate communication of product recall information from suppliers to retailers. In August, Michael Roberson, Publix’s director of corporate quality assurance, said during an SN-hosted webinar that the exchange has cuts its response time to recalls by 90%.
Publix has urged its suppliers who are not participating in the Rapid Recall Exchange to do so. “We’ve added participation [in the exchange] to our supplier scorecard, so that during business reviews our category management team and corporate purchasing department can have ongoing conversations with suppliers to encourage engagement with the Rapid Recall Exchange,” Roberson said. The chain has also worked closely with GS1 US to identify suppliers who have yet to join the exchange.
Publix has also developed an internal communication system for readily channeling recall information received from suppliers to stores, DCs and corporate offices. For consumers, recall information is posted on Publix’s website and Facebook page.