Busch's Supermarkets were spick and span, so store managers wondered why they should open the fresh departments to the food safety police.
That was the reaction Dan Courser got when he announced a new food safety initiative with NSF International, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based not-for-profit that certifies products and sets standards for food and water.
"They were skeptical," said Courser, the chief operations officer for Busch's, a chain of 11 supermarkets, also based in Ann Arbor. "They asked, 'Why are you spending the additional money?' I said I want to raise the bar on this."
Food safety is a priority for Courser. Though the stores were clean, and earned good ratings from the local authorities, Courser wanted to take food handling and sanitation practices to the next level.
Working with a third party, Busch's received NSF Fresh Check certification last year through a comprehensive food safety program that helps manage risks while improving the quality and shelf life of fresh foods. To become certified:
All store directors and co-directors and fresh food department managers have been trained in food safety practices. Courser estimated about 70% of fresh department associates have gone through the certification process.
routine for Busch's, the largest independent retailer in southeast Michigan. When the food safety police will show up is anyone's guess. During the unannounced monthly inspections, auditors from NSF, wearing white lab coats, hunt for violations like out-of-date products on shelves and prepared foods stored at improper temperatures. They also look for invisible problems through microbial testing on food contact, cutting, packaging and preparation surfaces in the delis, bakeries and meat departments.
The testing indicated problems with sanitizing. As a result, the meat department associates made changes in sanitizing procedures, and that reduced the microbial counts. Now fresh meat stays fresher longer, Courser said.
"It isn't what you can see but what you can't see that diminishes shelf life," he said. "We found out we weren't sanitizing the way we were supposed to. One of the ancillary benefits is shelf life improves. Meat doesn't turn color. You still have a nice bloom on your meat. We've seen improvements in every single one of our stores. Our pork is staying nice and pink. The case looks brighter so you sell more."
Store managers who raised their eyebrows at first now see the benefits of the program, he said. The inspections keep everybody on their toes.
"When they could see the shrink going down, they became more believing," he said. "I can't say they're all happy about it. They're getting inspected. If they get a bad rating, we know about it. The appropriate amount of leadership is given to the store that gets a bad rating. Every month, we have our best rating and our lowest rating. You better not hit the lowest rating two months in a row."
As far as he's concerned, the ongoing cost of the program is money well spent. Busch's spends around $350 per month per store, Courser said.
As much as it is a food safety initiative, the NSF program also has a brand marketing component. For continuing to meet the conditions required for certification, Busch's can advertise the NSF FreshCheck mark and food safety tips in its store circulars, on grocery bags and cash register receipts. NSF and the retailer are also working on point-of-purchase materials displaying the NSF mark for store delis, said Nancy Culotta, vice president of retail food safety for NSF.
"It's a good co-marketing type of program," she said. "[Courser] takes great pride in that. He wants everyone in the department to be trained and certified. He wants everyone to understand it's not just the boss saying don't do that. Everyone has a top-of-mind food safety mind-set when they're working in the deli or any perishable department."
Food retailing isn't a new business for NSF. In 2002, NSF acquired the FreshCheck program, which provides microbial testing and certification for supermarkets under a program that's less stringent than the certification program. Cub Foods, Nash Finch and Scolari's in Minnesota's Twin Cities are among NSF's clients.
NSF also offers "Fast Check," a service retailers use when they need quick laboratory analysis of any suspicious food items returned to the stores. NSF's microbiologists can run tests and deliver results back to stores, sometimes within 24 hours. Courser recalled the time when a shopper brought a turkey breast back to one of the stores. The shopper's son, who was lactose intolerant, had gotten ill after eating the turkey.
The shopper "thought there was milk in the turkey breast," he said. "We shipped it over to them [NSF]. They analyzed it. It took two days. They determined there was no milk products in it. They're the CSI of the food business."
In addition to Busch's, there are about 300 supermarkets, mainly in the Midwest, participating every month in the program, Culotta said. "We probably get about a dozen Fast Checks a month," she said.
In one rather amusing situation, the program pinpointed the cause of a consumer's illness. A shopper said she got violently ill after taking one bite out of a green apple, Culotta said. A store manager reported the case to NSF, and the apple was subjected to a battery of tests for pesticides and herbicides. After performing a microbial scan, the lab staff turned to a gas chromatography mass spectrometry instrument to analyze a small sample. That test indicated the apple contained a primary ingredient used in a common arthritic cream, which, it turned out, the shopper had been using, Culotta said.
"We went back to the store and told them," she said. "They told the woman and she was shocked but grateful. That's the benefit of having a forensic lab working for you to identify the problem."
In 1944, two professors from the University of Michigan and a public health official from Toledo, Ohio, founded what was originally called The National Sanitation Foundation. Since then, the organization has shortened its name, and, over the last three years, worked to raise its profile. NSF has taken out targeted advertising to make consumers aware of its services, and the meaning of the group's trademark.
A growing number of food retailers are starting to see the value of bringing in a third party to evaluate sanitation programs, Culotta said. When Busch's qualified for certification in 2005, the retailer was the first to sign up for what was then a new program. Now two other supermarket chains based in the Midwest are in the process of earning certification. Both chains should be certified by June, she said.
"There's going to be a groundswell," she said. "We'll have several customers certified by the end of the year."