Training employees to handle food safely may present more of an uphill battle than anyone could have anticipated.
That's one safety expert's conjecture, based on the findings of a study that's jam-packed with data showing consumers routinely make a shocking number of critical errors in food-handling in their own homes.
That's crucial information for supermarkets with fresh-meals programs because those consumers form the labor pool from which they draw their employees, said Richard Daniels, president of Audits International, Highland Park, Ill., the firm that conducted the study.
The clear implication is that any commercial food establishment -- including supermarket food-service departments -- needs to start at square one when training its associates.
In that regard, training must include the reasons why following the rules is important, since apparently people don't know or at least aren't concerned. "I was surprised at the number of serious violations, any one of which alone could cause food-borne illness or injury," Daniels said.
The question in Daniels' mind is, if Mr. and Mrs. Consumer are no more careful than that about protecting their own family and friends, can we expect food-service associates, in supermarkets or in restaurants, to be any more careful?
"As supermarkets become more and more involved in home-meal replacement programs, they have no choice but to re-evaluate their food-safety systems to ensure that foods are cooked, and cooled, and stored and handled properly," he said.
Having a person on every shift who is trained in food safety and is certified would be a smart investment. "For one thing, having a supervisor on full-time who understands the whys is important because they can motivate the others.
"When I grew up, I knew not to eat undercooked pork because I had visions of trichinosis eating my body up. People learned to cook pork well, often overcooking it." But, he added, people were well motivated to cook pork well because they were afraid they'd die if they didn't. By contrast, today's consumer seems to feel that food-safety warnings are overplayed.
"In more than a third of the households we checked, a third had undercooked chicken and 20% had undercooked beef," he noted.
It trickles down to the workplace. In food-service programs, associates need to be told why undercooked product can be dangerous, for example, and why handwashing is crucial, Daniels explained. "Handwashing, or rather the lack of it, is part of how cross-contamination occurs."
Gloves are not a panacea, he added. "The way gloves are being abused [in food establishments] really scares me. Too many employees seem to regard gloves as magic." Food-service associates are apt to scratch their heads or take money and ring up a sale with gloves on and then go back to handling food, he said.
"They should be taught that gloves must be changed at every point that handwashing would be required if they weren't wearing gloves."
Cooking foods to the proper temperature and then keeping them chilled at the correct temperature should also be top concerns for supermarket meals departments, Daniels said.
Operators must determine if their associates know how to use a meat thermometer properly, let alone if they know whether the thermometer is calibrated.
Whatever knowledge they possess, food-service associates are most likely not acquiring much of it at home, judging from Audits International's study.
Audits International's inspectors observed meal preparation, service, clean-up and storage of leftovers. They also evaluated temperature-taking practices, storage, sanitation, personal hygiene and the general condition of household kitchens.
Violations were categorized as minor, major or critical. Of the 106 households monitored, a full 96% had at least one critical violation. The average was 2.8 per household, with some tallying as many as eight.
Here are the critical errors observed and the percentage of households that were in error on each one: cross contamination, 76%; neglected handwashing, 57%; improper leftover cooling, 29%; improper chemical storage, 28%; insufficient cooking, 24%; refrigerator too warm (above 45 degrees F), 23%.
"What surprised me most about the survey results was the number of critical violations, particularly since they knew we were coming," Daniels said. Surprise visits, he suggested, would probably have turned up even more violations.
As a guest on the network TV news show "20/20" last month, Daniels discussed his company's survey findings, focusing on refrigerators that were kept too warm and thus created an atmosphere for bacteria to thrive.
"Are they all bad bacteria?" the "20/20" interviewer asked. Daniels answered no, but pointed out that the more bacteria there are, the higher the odds are that harmful varieties will be present.
Unlike household refrigerators, most commercial refrigerators have built-in thermometers; but even so, they should be checked periodically for accuracy, Daniels said.
Daniels' major advice for supermarket meals-program operators is to make sure they and their staffs are taking food safety seriously.
"Supermarkets going into HMR are entering new turf. They've got to understand that food safety has to be a given. They cannot cost-save there.
They need to perceive themselves as restaurants and follow the same sanitation and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point procedures," he said.
Daniels pointed out that following food safety can be even more important in the supermarket prepared-foods arena than in a restaurant, because hot food is often held for longer periods of time in stores.
He also urged supermarkets to have a person on staff on all shifts who has been certified, via outside training courses, in food safety.
"We've found in making our Audits International inspections that those places that have a supervisor who is certified do a better job," Daniels said.