NASHVILLE, Tenn. (FNS) -- Getting the food-safety message out to consumers -- and store associates -- doesn't have to be a labor-intensive, individual effort. There's plenty of turnkey programs available for retailers and others in the food business to take advantage of, according to a panel of industry and government experts who spoke here at the Refrigerated Foods Association's 21st Annual Conference and Exhibition.
For example, Maria Cameron, representing the Chicago-based American Dietetic Association, said that the success of the ADA's own national consumer-safety program has relied on the partnerships and connections between manufacturers, supermarkets and consumers.
"If people would just wash their hands with soap and water, we would have 50% elimination of food illnesses," said Cameron, speaking more about consumers, but looking to retailers and manufacturers to help get that message out. "The retailer can do so much more for food safety."
Cameron is president of Salud Consulting, a food-and-nutrition consulting business that's contracted with ADA for this program, underwritten by ConAgra Foods. The program, "Home Food Safety. + It's In Your Hands," focuses on four activities: washing, separating, cooking and refrigeration.
"We want consumers to look at safe food-handling procedures as automatically as buckling their seat belts," she said. "Our goal is to motivate all Americans to practice proper food safety behavior at home."
The Home Food Safety program's material -- including slick folders, bookmarks and aprons -- encourages food preparers to wash their hands often, keep raw meats and ready-to-eat foods separate, cook foods to the proper temperatures, and refrigerate foods below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Having created the message, Cameron is trying to reach consumers through broad market channels. Citing recent studies, Cameron noted that 96% of consumers said they believed supermarkets have an obligation to assure that the food they're buying is safe; similarly, 98% feel that food preparers have that obligation. And, usually, says Cameron, the person who prepares food is the same person who buys the food from a supermarket.
"Even having public service announcements at stores is helpful. Some stores have culinary specialists or they give classes where they could actually talk about these four simple things," she said.
"Supermarkets could give out point-of-sale materials, where maybe there's a rack of safety material. Maybe they could have a food-safety month, for example, and get people excited about food safety. Maybe having the clerks and the other employees wear buttons in a promotion to get consumers excited about following healthy behavior," she said.
Lunds-Byerly's, Edina, Minn., got involved with the Home Food Safety program when management saw the material that was offered, according to the consultant.
"They actually saw our brochures and called the American Dietetic Association. They said that we had wonderful material that they did not want to re-create [themselves]," said Cameron. "All our materials are developed so it's a very positive image. Our logo is a cutting board. It's an icon that is found in people's homes. It's not like other programs where they focus on bacteria."
The material fit more with Byerly's image and what it was trying to project to its shoppers, she added, saying, "They liked the look of our program and knew it was going to go well with their consumers."
Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif., also has worked with the program, giving out thermometers during barbecue season. In all -- with the help of supermarkets, a Web site (homefoodsafety.org), television segments and live events -- the program's four fundamental steps have reached 215 million people, according to Cameron.
"We still have a ways to go to get consumers to take a look at what they are doing in their own homes. It's not just the manufacturer or the processing plant or the restaurant or the supermarket. It's a shared responsibility," she said. "[Because] people actually think they are doing a good enough job already."
That assertion comes from numerous surveys on the topic, each showing that there is a wide gap between what consumers think food safety is, and what they actually practice.
One poll referred to by Cameron revealed that very few people know what the proper temperature is for home refrigerators. While some people have thermometers in their refrigerators or know the dial setting of the thermostat, they rarely know what the actual temperature is inside.
Of the people who know the proper temperatures for refrigeration and know of food safety, many still forget to follow them or rush past them, an observation study by Utah State University found. Of people observed:
Supermarkets can help with the refrigeration dilemma by taking consumer shopping patterns into account in their store designs.
"One of the areas we're looking at is giving consumers tips on how to buy foods in the grocery store," said Cameron. "Some retailers are set up with the frozen foods and refrigerated foods in the back of the store. Consumers buy those foods at the very beginning sometimes, and the food sits in their carts. We need to tell consumers that they should get those products last."
Consumers then need to know how important separating those items from other purchases is. Cameron noted that some consumers make sure to separate meats from ready-to-eat foods when they get home. But the foods often end up piled on top of each other in grocery carts, bags and back seats before they reach the house -- allowing fluids to drip and splash over other products.
Another problem in getting people to change their behavior is that many never recognize the consequences. "A lot of these 24-hour flus are, in fact, food poisoning," said Martin Mitchell, technical director for the Refrigerated Foods Association, another panelist.
The third member of the panel, Dr. Richard Whiting, a senior scientist at the Food and Drug Administration, Washington, detailed the threat posed by Listeria monocytogenes. He noted that some retail operators need to examine food that they serve in their stores, specifically in delis and salad bars. "Perhaps we need to have better controls there," he said.