Like other retailers, the Indianapolis-based chain has put a new focus on food safety as states across the country begin to adopt new regulations that are in line with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's Food Code recommendations. At the 107-store chain, food safety has always been a priority, but enforcing safe practices on the front line got easier when Scott Alkinburgh, Marsh's vice president of food safety/sanitation, instituted a scoring system that's applied to every department in every store.
Scores are based on what Alkinburgh and his team find when they conduct quarterly, unannounced inspections at all stores. The total of the departments' scores make up the store's score. So everybody is involved -- the store manager as well as each department manager and their associates. Naturally, good training comes first, but the rating system is key to ensuring proper execution at store level. The system appeals to people's competitive spirit, Alkinburgh said.
"If a store or a department in a store gets a score that falls under a certain number, it's marked for a second inspection. That's a short list, but one that nobody wants to be on." Once a store has had a second inspection, it is extremely rare that the same store will earn a low score again, he said.
"It's not because I post them for everybody to see. That's not my intention. I really want them to use their score more as a yardstick to measure themselves against. So they'll try to beat their own score next quarter."
Alkinburgh described to SN how Marsh has tried to gain control of the multiple, and sometimes seemingly overwhelming, aspects that contribute to making food safe. He stressed the company's policy is to meet or exceed local regulations, and it's doing that with programs designed to anticipate problems before they arise.
"We don't want to just satisfy a health inspection. We look for potential problems, and then correct the situation. For instance, temperature is so important. I always emphasize that the temperature of foods themselves should be monitored on a daily basis. We, like other retailers, have audible alarm systems in our in-line cases, but one bowl of food, maybe in a corner of the case, could be affected [without the alarm going off]. It just takes a single fan not operating or being obstructed [possibly by a merchandising prop] to affect the temperature of that one item."
Indeed, as Alkinburgh spoke of the importance of taking the temperature of potato salad and making sure associates wear hair restraints and gloves and wash their hands frequently, he noted the deli and in-store bakery departments require particularly close attention because they're selling such a high volume and great variety of ready-to-eat foods.
The close attention to detail can only be accomplished with good training -- particularly with an emphasis on a train-the-trainer approach -- and on constant observation, he said. To that end, the chain's partnership with Ecolab, St. Paul, Minn., and its chemical division, Greensboro, N.C.-based Kay, has been a real boon, Alkinburgh said. Through Kay, Ecolab provides a closed-loop cleaning system that's simple to operate. That alone reduces anxiety.
Assured that associates are not wasting cleaning solutions, or cleaning equipment with the wrong product, Alkinburgh is free to devote time to other aspects of food safety. The other services Ecolab provides -- including technical, legal and research assistance -- also add to Alkinburgh's peace of mind.
In addition to making their customer service department available to Marsh 24 hours a day, representatives of Ecolab/Kay make regular store inspections every eight weeks, covering all Marsh's units, he said. They not only check on sanitation, but the inspectors also alert Alkinburgh if they observe any store-level practices that run counter to Marsh's own policies on food safety. Having the inspectors make frequent checks gives Alkinburgh the freedom to concentrate on other issues, such as shelf-life, recalls, customers' comments about products and training.
He recently prepared and conducted a series of comprehensive, two-day, food-safety training sessions for the company's deli-bakery managers. As a result, Marsh currently has a food-safety certified food handler on site at each of its stores. After passing a standardized test at the end of the sessions, the managers were certified by The National Registry of Food Safety Professionals.
That's not new for the chain. Over the years, it has had more than 1,000 food handlers certified, but employee turnover took its toll. Certification also expires after five years.
The recent training sessions, for which Marsh brought the deli-bakery managers to the chain's corporate offices in Indianapolis, were particularly timely. New state regulations in Indiana, where most of Marsh's units are located, mandate that every supermarket must have a certified food handler working in-store as of Jan. 1, 2005.
Alkinburgh, pointing out he conducted three sessions, each attended by 40 to 50 people, said it makes particular sense to get the deli-bakery managers certified since they have to deal with such a variety of food safety issues.
"In deli, there are the slicing meats and cheeses and all the ready-to-eat foods, even some preparation in-store; and bakery has to keep very close watch on the pastries that contain dairy."
Alkinburgh said he puts big emphasis on train-the-trainer, making it clear he expects the managers to show their associates what they've learned.
"I tell them that when they get back to the store, whether it's one-on-one or instruction to a group, they can call on me for help. I'll give them videos and printed, handout materials, whatever they need," he said.
"I also tell them to just make a conscious effort at some time during each day to observe what their people are doing -- the details -- and to correct them if they're not doing it right. I tell them to look to see if associates are washing their hands before they start slicing meat, or if they have their hair restraints on."
Food Marketing Institute's food-safety textbook, literature provided by the International-Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association and other materials are used during the sessions. While Alkinburgh aims to cover every facet of food safety, a good amount of time is spent discussing the basics -- sanitation and personal hygiene.
"We spent 20 or maybe 30 minutes on hand-washing alone. For something that's fundamental, not technical, that's a lot of time. But we wanted to get across how very important it is," Alkinburgh said.
Aside from the obvious value of specific food-safety training and re-training, there's a lot of peripheral value in bringing store-level people from across the market area together at one location, he said.
"It's a little easier for us, I know, since we're a regional chain, but I feel it's important. These group meetings provide a great forum. [Representatives of stores] can talk about their particular challenges, and we as trainers can help them find solutions -- solutions that others could apply. And the training gives our people information that helps them keep stores cleaner, improve shelf-life of products, reduce risks of foodborne illnesses and even improve morale. That's just to name a few benefits," Alkinburgh said.