Keeping hot and cold foods at optimal temperatures is a never-ending challenge for retailers.
At all costs, managers want to avoid the dangerous 40-to-140-degree temperature zone - the range where bacteria are most likely to grow in food.
"Maintaining proper temperature is one of the four major ways we can stop bacteria from growing in food," explained Jill Hollingsworth, vice president of food safety for the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute. "It keeps food safe and allows it to maintain its quality for a longer period of time."
Although personal hygiene, cross-contamination and cleanliness play a role in food safety, temperature is a common denominator in a combination of events that can lead to outbreaks of foodborne illness.
Contaminated food, for instance, may be left out at room temperature for many hours, allowing bacteria to multiply. If it's insufficiently cooked, that bacteria will continue to thrive, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last month, 29 people in Minnesota got sick after eating frozen chicken entrees that weren't cooked long enough to kill Salmonella, according to published reports. Because the chicken was pre-browned, shoppers underestimated its cooking time and simply heated the entrees instead of cooking them adequately.
Retailers follow various strategies to prevent similar outbreaks. Publix Super Markets, which is well known for the quality of its fresh foods, routinely monitors the temperatures of hot and cold foods as well as the cases in which they're displayed, noted Maria Brous, spokeswoman for the Lakeland, Fla.-based retailer.
"We're consistently monitoring temperatures with several proactive walks through the stores
that take place daily," she explained.
In addition to monitoring and recording temperature readings from stationary thermometers that are kept in refrigerated and hot cases, associates check hot and cold food and case temperatures with handheld, calibrated thermometers, Brous said. Thermometers are also used to gauge the temperature of the inside of the thickest part of meat, as it's cooking, to ensure it's reached a safe temperature.
In addition, Publix takes precautionary steps to protect against the loss of cold air in its refrigerated cases, she said.
"We're very conscious about keeping our cooler doors closed and we make sure to leave space in between products like orange juice so that our coolers aren't overpacked." This is done so that cold airflow isn't inhibited, Brous said.
In the event that power is lost in the retailer's hurricane-prone market area, back-up generators compensate until conventional power is restored in the stores, Brous said.
The retailer enforces these practices by requiring that its department managers complete FMI's SuperSafeMark food safety training program.
"We wrote the content along with the program's authors," said FMI's Hollingsworth. "We were instrumental in turning the program into one that is relevant to the food retail environment."
Prior to SuperSafeMark's development, Publix had to adapt a restaurant-focused food safety program for its stores.
SuperSafeMark focuses on time and temperature control, personal hygiene, cleaning and sanitizing, and cross-contamination. It is designed for all levels of supermarket employees from new hires to managers, according to FMI.
After completing the course, department managers at Publix train their associates. Publix also requires managers to pass an exam at the end of the class.
"If they're unable to complete the exam [after three tries] they are demoted a level, even if they don't manage a perishable section," Brous explained.
Refrigeration issues can be particularly challenging during the summer months, said Cheryl Cohen, food safety specialist at Wooster, Ohio-based Buehler's Fresher Foods.
To keep tabs on food temperature, associates at the retailer's stores manually monitor the temperatures of coolers and freezers with infrared thermometers. Also, when case temperatures rise into a dangerous zone, an alarm goes off, Cohen said.
Cohen teaches the ServSafe Essentials food safety program, which is required training for all fresh food department employees, store managers and zone managers.
The two-day class covers temperature control, microbiology, personal hygiene, purchasing and receiving foods, and pest control.
Hot foods prepared at Buehler's are checked with a bimetallic-stemmed thermometer to ensure that their internal temperature is high enough, Cohen said. This type of thermometer is able to measure temperatures ranging from 0 to 220 degrees Fahrenheit and features a dimple that indicates the end of the sensing area. Hot foods, like roasted chicken, are displayed in hot cases at 140 degrees or higher.
At Buehler's, frozen foods are thawed at 41 degrees or lower and marinated inside refrigerators.
Cold prepared foods, like fresh-cut produce, are refrigerated shortly after they're prepared.
"Any cut produce is promptly refrigerated in cases to hold at 41 degrees or lower," Cohen explained. "All produce is washed before cutting and melons are dipped in a sanitizing rinse."
Additionally, most product is chilled before preparation along with equipment that will help it maintain its temperature, she said.
To promote cold air circulation, refrigerated cases at Buehler's are marked with fill lines, which indicate the highest point that products can be stacked. Store associates are also instructed to quickly store deliveries of fresh foods.
Buehler's distributes food safety brochures that advise customers to do the same by going straight home and immediately unloading groceries after they shop. The brochure also outlines the internal temperatures that beef, pork, poultry, stuffed meat, fish and seafood should reach.
Similarly, Publix distributes several food safety brochures in the communication centers of its stores, Brous said.
"All of our department managers can answer customers' food safety questions," she explained. "We take the time to educate them."
Many customers, for instance, don't know that bacteria can multiply in stuffing that is cooked inside a turkey, she said.
ON THE DECLINE
Officials credited greater food safety awareness, in part, for a reduction in foodborne illnesses related to common bacterial pathogens, according to a report released last year by the CDC in collaboration with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Nevertheless, foodborne illnesses are persistent. In spite of everyone's best efforts to eradicate them, it's obvious the nasty bugs that latch onto fresh food remain a threat, particularly to very young and very old consumers.
Last month, a lawsuit was filed against Quincy, Mass.-based Stop & Shop on behalf of an 8-year-old and his parents. The suit contends that the boy became seriously ill after eating ground beef purchased at a Manchester, N.H., Stop & Shop store last September.
After consuming a hamburger made at a family barbecue on Sept. 4, 2005, the boy came down with an E. coli 0157:H7 infection, developed Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome and required kidney dialysis.
Stop & Shop has defended itself against the allegations and is prepared to do so in court, said Rob Keane, spokesman for the chain, a division of Ahold USA.
"Stop & Shop follows all food safety regulations and guidelines and works hard to ensure that its meat is safe to eat," he said.
"We also recommend all consumers follow safe cooking procedures and cook all meat fully before serving and eating."