ORLANDO, Fla. (FNS) -- Uncertainty about food suppliers and the inability to cost-effectively train food-service workers in a high turnover era are among the top barriers to ensuring consistency in food-safety initiatives, according to retail and food-service industry representatives who spoke at the International Food Safety Congress here.
"Finding good safety partners is a challenge," said Peter Rojek, vice president of quality assurance and food safety at Montvale, N.J.-based A&P. Although chain officials visit vendors to ensure compliance with Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point practices, Rojek acknowledged that they cannot inspect each vendor and must rely on the suppliers' third-party certification.
Even then, Rojek noted retailers must be careful not to become overreliant on certifiers, since any food-safety incidents will have a greater impact on the chain. Although all the certification systems are based on the federally approved Good Manufacturing Practices program, the certifiers do not all share identical standards and are not all accredited.
A&P has followed the lead of Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif; Albertson's, Boise, Idaho; and other chains, which accept suppliers inspected and monitored by the best-known certification firms.
Rojek said food-safety training is still a problem for the supermarket food-service industry, even though A&P is continually revising training methods. High turnover in the healthy economy and regulatory inconsistencies make associate education difficult.
"The biggest challenge is still execution of the plan," he said at the meeting, where restaurant industry representatives expressed similar concerns.
"In the United States, turnover can be more than 250%," said Joaquin Pelaez, senior vice president of research and development, supply and global quality at Louisville, Ky.-based Tricon Restaurants International, operator of the Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut quick-service chains. "How do you ensure the employee turns over a consistent product every time?" he asked.
All officials agreed that food-safety training and follow-up reminders should be simpler. A&P is considering the use of more icons, rather than wording, on wall posters that remind employees to wash their hands and to obey other safety mandates. "Icons can tie the training to operations," he said.
John Shulz, director of quality assurance and program development at Washington-based Marriott International, also stressed the effectiveness of simple messages. The hospitality operator utilizes a "cartoon-like" training video at both domestic and international hotels that features only pictures, no words.
"Some people [in foreign countries] have trouble with their own language, let alone English," he said, noting that today's service-oriented workforce is increasingly foreign-born.
Meanwhile, A&P is utilizing more computer-based training for food handlers to "make training more exciting and interactive," Rojek said. He stressed, however, that computers are just one tool in the entire arsenal being used to combat foodborne illness attributed to store-level lapses. Computers supplement classes, including initial two-day training seminars for all store department managers, literature and subsequent food-safety refresher courses.
In training staff, A&P managers stress that effective food safety depends on each staff member, an approach Rojek believes increases an individual associate's level of personal responsibility, and boosts their sense of obligation. "You make them feel like a partner in the system," he said.
In addition to food handlers, the entire organization has been more involved in food-safety measures, which has helped spur improvements. "We've got buy-in from top management, and we've got ground-up involvement," Rojek said.
For example, a food-service worker may point out a problem they notice with a delivery to the store manager, who takes it to his boss. On up the command chain it goes, as senior management follows up on the issue until it is resolved.
In addition to training and turnover challenges, Rojek said retailers must also be prepared for issues that the government, media and consumers believe are important. For instance, even though the biotechnology issue has not garnered the same attention in the United States as it has overseas, Rojek urged colleagues to watch the issue. The chain has received some letters from antibiotechnology groups, but has not had picket lines or other actions outside their stores. But, as general awareness increases, the national mood may change, he said.
One aspect of food safety presenting an immediate challenge is food allergies, according to Rojek. Customers allergic to certain foods, like gluten or peanuts, have become particularly concerned that all ingredients are completely disclosed on all food labels, especially those items containing nuts and dairy ingredients. He noted the recent increase in the number of recalls by both manufacturers and retailers where these components have inadvertently been added to foods.