You are here
How important an issue is food safety? Important enough that more than 1,500 industry, government and academic professionals saw fit to attend the 16th annual Food Safety Summit in Baltimore last month, where they could take part in workshops, ask questions at a town hall-style meeting, award achievements in the field, forge meaningful contacts, and check out the latest products and services on the show floor.
“This event is a perfect opportunity to find out the latest and greatest the industry has to offer,” notes Sharon Wood, the director of quality assurance and food safety at San Antonio-based H-E-B. “Attendees feel this is a true investment and a time to have access to information that is new and different.”
H-E-B’s not the only retailer to strive to be ahead of the curve when it comes to food safety. Since last Sept. 30, Wegmans Food Markets has required all of its fresh produce suppliers to show they’ve passed a “Good Agricultural Practices” (GAPs) audit, a requirement the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocer phased in first for growers of crops linked to past outbreaks of foodborne illness, like spinach or melons, back in 2008, and then gradually expanded to apply to more types of fresh produce. In advance of the requirement, Wegmans began hosting food safety education training sessions for growers in 2005.
Designed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the voluntary audit system pinpoints key food safety issues for growers, enabling them to verify that best practices are in place at their farms. “These audits are the best way we have to know that a grower is following practices to minimize the chance of pathogens getting into the food supply,” says Bill Pool, Wegmans’ food safety manager for produce. “We all want to keep earning our customers’ trust in the safety of the fresh foods we offer.”
Costco Wholesale, meanwhile, last year adopted a software solution from Aspirago, a wholly owned subsidiary of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based NSF International, to help manage supplier food safety auditing and product quality testing data. “Ensuring food safety and quality across the global supply chain is more complex than ever,” explains Christine Summers, director of food safety and corporate quality assurance at Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco. “Aspirago offers complete end-to-end functionality specifically designed for our needs as a global retailer to ensure our food safety expectations are met worldwide.”
The solution provides secure, collaborative web-based software that aggregates and analyzes third-party auditing and testing data, including multiple audit schemes and requirements consistent with Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) standards, in addition to customized retailer-specific audits.
And at the actual store level, Price Smart, an operator of membership warehouse clubs in Central America and the Caribbean, last fall implemented AiroCide, an air sanitation technology manufactured and distributed by Atlanta-based KES Science and Technology Inc., in all 31 of its locations.
First launched aboard Space Shuttle Columbia mission STS-73 to preserve crop growth, the solution is an air purifier that completely mineralizes (turns organics into carbon dioxide and water vapor) airborne bacteria, mold, fungi, mycotoxins, viruses, allergens, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as ethylene, and odors without the use of filters and the production of harmful byproducts.
“AiroCide has been very beneficial for all our locations,” notes Philippe Jacquemin, corporate produce buyer for San Diego-based PriceSmart. “Odors are gone. Product holds up better. We offer our members the best quality available, at a fair price. Anything that we can do, any steps that we can take to ensure achieving this goal, is worth the investment. We pride ourselves in making sure that all controls are in place so our members continue to enjoy the highest level of quality.”
But with such items looming on the agenda as the final major pillar of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which would help prevent the contamination of food products during transportation by establishing requirements for sanitary transportation practices (the proposed rule remains open for comment through May 31), how can retailers, perhaps overwhelmed by the need to keep pace with such sweeping change, make sure they’re doing all they can to provide safe fresh food items to consumers?
Areas of Concern
To figure out how best to approach food safety, it’s instructive to look at retailers’ chief obstacles to achieving it.
“The one thing that is keeping retail CEOs up at night is the possibility they will be sued for selling tainted food,” asserts Randy Fields, CEO of Utah’s Park City Group, whose technology powers ReposiTrak, a food safety solution. “In fact, if you look at the annual report of any publicly traded food retailer, there is always a section on food safety risk. The risk is certainly highest in the fresh food departments, but given events like the salmonella outbreak at Peanut Corp. of America five years ago, the issue is also impacting the center store.” He adds that this worry is intensified by the fact “that while suppliers are supposed to have insurance to cover problems like tainted products, many don’t, and the retailers themselves become the targets of victims’ lawyers.”
Often complicating the issue, Fields contends, are “operational barriers to implementing fresh food safety strategies, like responsibility scuffles between merchandisers and the quality control group, but the bigger issue is data accuracy and timeliness. Too often, the right people and departments don’t have the right information at the right time to prevent food safety events.”
“Our retailer customers are indicating to us their biggest concerns revolve around improper handling of perishable products at the grower/shipper level and poor handling practices at the store level after the product is actually received,” observes Doug Thurston, VP food sales at Boise, Idaho-based PakSense, which provides a full line of temperature-monitoring labels used on perishable products.
Thurston attributes grocers’ problems with instituting food safety measures to “the sheer number of people involved in the delivery process,” noting: “Suppliers, carriers and retailers all play a role in ensuring that perishable products are properly handled. When working in concert, they make sure the cold chain is preserved, product is handled properly, and only the freshest and safest products reach consumers. But many entities touch the product, from original harvest or processing to the consumer. For example, product is delivered to a distribution center, handled, shipped to various stores, handled or mishandled by employees; there are many transfer points. Buying habits come into play, product availability, Mother Nature, poor handling practices prior to the retail customer getting the product, poor practices by the grower in plant and harvest, etc.”
Peter T. Wolf, VP of sales for retail and new markets at New Hartford, N.Y.-based ParTech Inc., reels off a list of retailer headaches, among them ensuring that staffers are following operational guidelines, proper storage of food safety records, dealing with internal and external audits, the cost to the environment, and, perhaps most critically, not being alerted to problems.
“All perishable, fresh food and prepared food departments are most affected because [of] the nature of the products and the HACCP rules and regulations that guide the preparation and holding of hot and cold foods,” he says.
Obstacles cited by Wolf include the insight that it’s “human nature to take shortcuts when they cannot be detected,” which often stymies the “accurate and verifiable completion of food safety checklists in the stores.”
Major concerns at retail noted by Dr. Dale Grinstead, senior food safety technology editor at Duncan, S.C.-based Sealed Air, are environmental contamination with Listeria in deli and produce, as well as issues relating to transportation, the latter of which, given the current regulatory focus, he expects to move up on grocers’ radar. Grinstead’s colleague, Catherine François, global director of the Diversey Consulting division of Sealed Air, flags traceability, temperature management throughout the supply chain, cleanliness, pest control management and associate training as potential trouble spots.
Both point to consumers’ lack of food safety knowledge as a challenge to progress. “Consumers expect food safety [in stores], but don’t understand that most food safety failures happen at home,” says Grinstead, offering such examples as time temperature abuse and hygiene lapses, and describing shopper education as “critical.”
He further observes that sourcing product locally, while touted as good for the environment because of its ability to reduce carbon footprints, has “vastly complicated everyone’s supply chain,” by introducing myriad small suppliers with a range of food safety standards, including those laboring under the misperception that “quality and safety [are] antithetical.”
A Wealth of Solutions
To help retailers achieve optimal food safety, vendors offer a full range of solutions spanning sophisticated software, temperature-monitoring advances and state-of-the-art packaging.
ReposiTrak lets users “track and trace products and ingredients throughout the global food, drug and dietary supplement supply chains,” explains Fields. “In addition, our technology addresses the market need of receiving, storing, sharing and maintaining regulatory documentation all in one central location. What we really do is reduce risk in the supply chain by identifying backward-chaining sources and forward-chaining recipients of products in near real time.”
PakSense’s temperature-monitoring labels “record data during transport and provide data on the environmental conditions the perishable product was subjected to,” notes Amy Childress, the company’s VP marketing. “They are in use by more than 1,500 customers in more than 75 countries. We also provide consulting services to our customers. Our staff is from the food industry — we have employees who have worked for retailers and suppliers in quality assurance roles, so they have firsthand knowledge of what goes on in the supply chain and how our technology can help our customers pinpoint supply chain issues.”
PakSense recently formed a partnership with Oslo, Norway-based Thinfilm, which “developed the industry’s first printed rewriteable memory,” she explains.
To develop a printed electronic temperature-monitoring label, Thinfilm enlisted other companies to provide such components as PST Sensors’ printed thermistors and Acreo’s printed electrochromic displays, according to Childress.
“A prototype of this next-generation temperature-monitoring label has been demonstrated, and Thinfilm is in the process of fine-tuning the manufacturing and printing process,” she says. “The label will definitively display if certain temperature ranges have been breached and is positioned as an alternative to chemical indicators.” When the product rolls out, as is expected early next year, it will be the first time a printed electronics temperature-monitoring label has been offered for use in food markets, observes Childress, who adds, “By joining forces, PakSense and Thinfilm will help ensure only the freshest and safest products reach consumers.”
Wolf describes ParTech’s SureCheck as an “automated, mobile solution that provides intelligent checklist-based logging and monitoring for restaurant/retail food safety and management of employee-assigned tasks.” The solution’s platform knows when checklists are due, enforces tolerances, provides remediation steps and alerts management; provides consistent and measurable information for compliance programs; is faster than pen and paper; offers data collection accuracy; has a cloud-based infrastructure that’s scalable to meet users’ various needs; issues immediate real-time alerts for resolution; and requires little training to use.
“Incredibly, the area of the food safety checklist is one of the last to be improved using technology,” he notes. “The inefficient, prone-to-error, costly and environmentally unfriendly paper checklist will be replaced by intelligent checklist platforms” like SureCheck.
Since Mike Rosinski, marketing director for smoked and processed meats at Sealed Air’s Cryovac food packaging brand, notes that “proper handling and cooking [of food] is key,” and that packaged materials can prevent cross-contamination between raw meat and ready-to-eat deli meat, the company offers a variety of packaging solutions to ensure quality of products by protecting them throughout the supply chain.
These include non-barrier vacuum Cryovac Super L Bags, most frequently applied to whole-body and bone-in breast turkeys to reduce the risks of leaking and cross-contamination at the retail level, and which can withstand temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the distribution process, and the Cryovac CNP310 Heavy Bag, which enables post-pasteurization/post-packaging heat treatment of abrasive smoked and processed meat products, and is most commonly applied to items with hard or coarse surfaces to help reduce pathogens, control microbial counts and extend shelf life.
Grinstead notes that Sealed Air also offers customized Listeria control programs for stores of all sizes and footprints, and maintains continuous interaction with customers on food safety issues.
Along with relying on vendors’ solutions and services, grocers and other interested parties need to be more methodical about food safety. Sealed Air’s François urges the implementation of best practices training, education, auditing, and temperature and waste management to “minimize risk at every level along the supply chain.” Such systems in place will enable adopters to anticipate future risks and address them through technology, she notes.
PakSense’s Thurston notes that since the store “is an area that the retailer has the most control over … policies and increased training with store employees on proper receiving practices would be beneficial and would help mitigate issues in the ‘last mile’ of the supply chain.”
Grinstead and François posit that it’s the responsibility of retailers to manage comprehensive farm-to-fork programs, and that joint approaches among retailers to deal with an ever more complex supply chain featuring multiple suppliers are experiencing success, as such initiatives “take cost out of suppliers’ operations” and “put in place a certain level of confidence” for consumers.