Programmed cleaning-fluid systems, special floor scrubbers, additional faucets, stainless-steel surfaces, shelving that pops out in small sections, hands-free sinks -- even bilingual signs -- are all part of retailers' renewed commitment to getting food safety done right.
Awareness has risen to "orange alert" for a number of reasons. Headlines in the consumer press shout news about hepatitis A transmitted by green onions, meat recalls related to E. coli and liability suits brought against restaurant chains.
Amid the noise, new technological advances and suppliers' efforts are making it easier for retailers in the fresh-foods business to incorporate better sanitation practices.
"Attention to food safety has always been at the forefront in supermarkets' fresh departments, but it's definitely heightened now. At the same time, increasing [employee] turnover makes execution all the more difficult. You have to keep retraining and retraining," said one industry source.
Simplicity in cleaning was a major factor when Darrenkamp's Markets went shopping for new cooking equipment and flooring for a store undergoing renovation, said David Darrenkamp, a co-owner of the Lancaster, Pa., independent. [See "Small Store Gets New Food Court Business," SN, Jan. 19, 2004.]
Meanwhile, Scott Alkinburgh, vice president of food safety and sanitation at 112-unit Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis, Ind., said he thinks the new generation of equipment and fixtures has hit the right note.
"As long as they stick to stainless steel -- it's easier to clean than galvanized or electroplated metal. In fact, it's as anti-microbial as it gets. Equipment companies have gotten with retailers to ask what would help, and I see more cases and equipment now made out of stainless steel," Alkinburgh said.
He pointed out that glass and stainless steel are the major components in display cases used by Marsh.
"Now, most of the shelving [in the cases] is made from stainless steel and comes out in two- to four-foot sections, easy to clean. And in the bottom, once you turn the motors off and take the plates off, you just spray it out. They all have an outlet that leads into a drain in the floor. So, everything rinses out nice and easy. As long as you keep up on it, it's a piece of cake."
Sutton Place Gourmet favors stainless steel for work surfaces as well as for equipment and utensils, which is a big factor in cleaning, said Steven Roberts, vice president of culinary operations at the 11-unit, Bethesda, Md.-based company. To aid in its fight against bacteria, the company has been installing more hands-free sinks and has begun to mount bilingual signs -- in Spanish and in English -- to remind associates that they must wash their hands every 10 to 20 minutes, Roberts said.
He went on to describe an automated cleaning system the company uses to make store-level execution as easy as possible. Designed and maintained by Kay-Ecolab, Greensboro, N.C., the system makes cleaning and sanitizing just about foolproof.
"It's a tower of chemicals that's designed to be used for proper cleaning and storage [of the cleaning agents]. The solutions are set up in dispensers, and gears and dials are preset to ensure that proper proportions and amounts are mixed. It's automated [and color-coded], and that makes it very user-friendly," Roberts said.
Like most other retailers, Sutton Place weighs various factors relating to food safety, cleanability and aesthetics when buying new equipment. Roberts thinks manufacturers face the same dilemma in their design rooms: form or function?
"Typically, I think [manufacturers] are first concerned with aesthetics, then with whether the cases hold food at the right temperatures. That's good, but do the doors come off? How easy are they to clean? I do think that recently, [ease of cleaning] has become a more important issue for them. We use Hussmann cases for the most part, and they are easy to keep clean."
David Darrenkamp said he's doing anything he can to make it easy for associates to follow through on good cleaning and sanitation practices.
"When we were buying combi ovens a couple of weeks ago, we took our deli people down to the manufacturer to look at them. Those new combis just are so easy to clean. You set the heating core up, and everything just falls off. Then, it's easy from there on. When our people saw that, that was it."
The tiles Darrenkamp chose for an expanded kitchen are textured to prevent slippage, but that choice required his buying a special floor scrubber to facilitate the cleaning and sanitizing of the rougher surface, he said.
When it comes to ease of cleaning, one particular piece of equipment -- a new Hobart meat grinder -- gets high praise from Marsh's Alkinburgh.
"It's actually tilted so when you flush it with water after you clean and sanitize it, the water runs out of the machine. [On other grinders], there used to be a hopper with a big lip on it, and that could hold as much as three gallons of water that you had to then empty. This one was designed lower to make it easier to use and, consequently, that makes it easier to clean, too," Alkinburgh said.
At all its new stores -- and there are two just about to open -- and in remodels, Marsh is adding more faucets strategically placed around the store. That's to further facilitate the Kay-Ecolab automated cleaning system that Marsh, like Sutton Place Gourmet, uses.
Also like Sutton Place Gourmet, Marsh utilizes Ecolab to help it monitor store-level sanitation and other safe practices.
Indeed, most industry sources SN talked to said it's obvious there's more attention being paid to food safety, from budgeting at the corporate level right down to front-line activity.
Bill Pizzico, president, The Prizm Group, Blue Bell, Pa., a consulting group that works with supermarkets, summed it up when he said a huge part of what's going on is a matter of enforcing common sense.
"Hand-washing and wearing gloves has to be a mandate. We're vulnerable whenever and wherever we aren't paying attention," Pizzico said, noting that retailers are more vigilant.
Compared to even five years ago, Pizzico said he sees more funds budgeted for ensuring safe practices and a heightened commitment to getting things done right at store level.
Technology has helped keep things safe, others said. Advances in computerization certainly is a boon, but Roberts at Sutton Place Gourmet said it's everyday procedures that count the most.
"It's nothing in particular we've done new," he noted. "It's what we're doing every day, every week, every month, to build quality work habits. You just have to keep doing it."
THE COLD WAR
BETHESDA, Md -- Good sanitizing procedures may be the primary defense against germs, but retailers are also recruiting refrigeration in the ongoing battle.
"The good news for food safety is that more people in the industry understand time/temperature issues these days," said Steven Roberts, vice president, culinary operations, Sutton Place Gourmet.
The 11-unit, upscale retailer chills everything -- including utensils, mixing bowls and platters, as well as ingredients -- prior to an item's preparation in order to retard bacterial growth.
Certainly, Sutton Place, just as others do, has cleaning and sanitizing programs in place, and monitors practices at store level. In addition, this retailer, with its huge array of chilled, prepared foods, has focused its attention on coldness from start to finish.
"It was unheard of 10 years ago to hold all the ingredients in the refrigerator before you started to mix a tuna salad, for instance, but we do that now. If we keep everything as cold as possible, including the mixing bowl, the spoons and the platter, then when the product is being mixed in ambient temperature, it has every opportunity to stay out of the danger zone. I see more kitchens doing that. They're also building cold [prep] rooms," Roberts said.
Aiding in the big chill are equipment and utensils like blast chillers and ice wands, fixtures that were not in common use a few years ago, he explained.
"We make soups by the gallons. They're very hot when they come off the stove. So, we set the [kettle] in a cold bath of ice water, and immerse an ice wand in the soup so it gets chilled from inside as well as outside. I see ice wands used more and more these days. But, as recently as three or four years ago, restaurant chefs I talked to were apt to ask me what an ice wand is."