"In a summer full of headlines about corporate misdeeds and irresponsibility, ConAgra's massive recall in July stands apart. The defective product wasn't fiber optic cable, energy futures, or some esoteric financial instrument. It was bad meat."
-- Author Eric Schlosser, The Nation, Sept. 16, 2002
E.coli O157:H7. The bogeyman of the food supply. Commonly found in the intestines of cattle, and commonly spread from beef guts to ground beef in slaughterhouses. Cook the beef well and the pathogen dies. Don't cook an O157-tainted burger well and, possibly, the eater dies. Most Americans who worry about their kids know these facts, but one fact many don't know is that it is nigh-on impossible for a supermarket to be responsible for contaminating a food product with E. coli O157.
Plenty of products in a supermarket might test positive for generic E. coli, a benign bacterium that could be a precursor to O157. But "supermarkets have very little control over E. coli O157," says Dr. Olga Stavrakis, a food scientist who specializes in testing for pathogens in supermarkets. "It would always come from the processor." The same is often true for other foodborne illnesses that cause panic in the marketplace, such as last summer's outbreak of listeria in the Northeast that caused the deaths of eight people. Investigators found a strain of listeria in ready-to-eat, Wampler brand turkey products from Pilgrim's Pride Corp. in Franconia, Pa. that was indistinguishable from the strain identified in 53 listeriosis patients.
Why should supermarkets even care about food safety scares? When recalls such as ConAgra's are issued, newspapers print the long lists of Krogers and Winn-Dixies and Safeways where tainted product was distributed. Supermarkets are also often the focus of food safety inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "The USDA conducts its random tests for E. coli O157:H7 at wholesale and retail locations, not at the gigantic slaughterhouses where the meat is usually contaminated," noted food industry critic Schlosser in his Nation piece.
Such realities don't usually mean much to a customer with a really sick child. Supermarkets are the last link in the food chain, so they are the first place consumers go for help and amends when they get bad product. That's why retailers need to be concerned about food safety in general, and why they need to become obsessed with the factors that can contaminate products in their stores. Those problem factors grow by the day, a dangerous byproduct of increased competition that compels retailers to constantly expand their fresh and prepared food offerings.
The supermarket operator's food safety focus can be summed up in one word: perishables. The name itself suggests something that is in a constant state of decay, and grocers would do well to remember that. "In terms of perishables, supermarkets present a unique and challenging environment, tougher to deal with than any other environment," observes Stavrakis. "In a restaurant, all the food that's served is handled and consumed there. At a fast-food place, all the food is either eaten there or taken out and eaten quickly. The supermarket is the only place selling food that may be eaten four days later."
Establishing effective food safety guidelines need not be daunting. As it happens, the supermarket's most practical strategy for building a strong customer base—selling the freshest, highest-quality product possible—is also its best route to a strong food safety policy. It's a policy that's usually already firmly in place in supermarkets that emphasize produce offerings, and that's good. Despite all the bad press drawn by hamburger recalls and salmonella in chicken, fresh fruits and vegetables may well be the chief problem areas in store-level food safety.
Produce was responsible for more than 18,000 cases of illness in the U.S. between 1990 and 2002, more than any other food source, according to a study done by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based food industry watchdog group. Sloppy farm practices was the reason given for the poor safety record of produce, which was followed on CSPI's list by multi-ingredient foods like pizza and salads, poultry, eggs, beef, and seafood. (Seafood was responsible for the largest number of disease outbreaks—more than 500.)
As stores rush to build up their organic sections, the produce department becomes even more in need of food safety initiatives. Some say the organic products that consumers look to for increased health benefits may be the supermarket products most likely to spread dangerous pathogens to their families. "Organics must be grown in a natural environment, and the natural requirement extends to the manure used as fertilizer. Many kinds of pathogens can be present in manure that isn't composted properly, and that manure is going to be present on the organic fruits and vegetables brought into the store," says Dr. Estes Reynolds, a professor of food science and technology at the University of Georgia.
To ensure safe environments for perishable food products in stores, supermarket executives must establish systems to maintain constant vigilance in a few important areas. Here they are, along with tips from experts on how to manage them.
Temperature & shelf life
Grocers need to have a realistic handle on the shelf lives of all their products, especially how handling product within individual stores affects those shelf lives. "If a meat department uses rollers to tenderize chicken breasts, they break the cell walls and bacteria will move from the surface area into the chicken flesh. That reduces the shelf life, but meat department workers often don't realize it," says Stavrakis, founder of the FreshCheck service that tests and monitors perishables in supermarkets for food safety risk. "Our store auditors will ask them what's the modified shelf life for the tenderized products and they'll say, 'All our chicken breasts are always a week.'"
Reynolds says there are five factors needed for bacterial growth: food, water, warm temperatures, time, and, in some cases, oxygen. "Take any one of them away, and you control the organism."
Temperature is one that seems obvious, but it can be difficult to control. Back room workers can mistakenly leave a meat shipment on a loading dock for a protracted time on a hot summer's day. Product can arrive tainted by lack of cooling. (Independent truckers often haul refrigerated loads, and many incidents have been recorded of truckers reducing refrigeration levels to shave costs.) Equipment malfunctions can wipe out a meat case, so constant maintenance schedules should be maintained.
Sometimes, individual stores may be in the dark about the proper temperature for certain products. Dr. Ted Labuza, a professor of food science and technology at the University of Minnesota, wears a watch with an infrared temperature sensor and regularly monitors refrigerated cases when he's in supermarkets. "Whole classes of products are sold at wrong temperatures," he says. "DiGiorno pastas have to be stored at 41 degrees. I see it regularly at up to 60 degrees."
Labuza's advice to supermarkets is to save money and trouble by setting higher standards for temperature control. Overdo it a little in the distribution center and the store to counteract human error on the part of employees and consumers. Listeria, after all, will still grow at 32 degrees.
Sanitation & handling
These areas require the most effort, planning, and policy-making. They are central to any store's food safety posture. "General sanitation must be the premier issue," says Reynolds.
The basis of a good sanitation program, Reynolds says, is the establishment and rigorous execution of a master cleaning schedule that takes into account all areas where bacteria can grow or migrate. These include air conditioning units, ductwork, refrigeration units, and drains. Coolers should be cleaned once a week, ductwork once a month. Deli cases, meat cases, and storage rooms should be monitored constantly.
And don't forget the floors. "Supermarkets often neglect cleaning floors and floor drains," says Reynolds. "If there is bacteria on the floor, shopping carts will spread it around liberally."
Other factors of note in sanitation and handling:
Materials. Stavrakis suggests that stores check their sanitation systems regularly to ensure they're performing up to par. Keep watch on the chemicals used in stores, for effectiveness, but also for possible toxicity.
Product segregation. Keep problem products away from other products to avoid cross-contamination. In the meat department, keep dedicated knives and cutting tables for different meats if possible, or clean thoroughly before introducing a new product. Be careful about stocking of vegetables. Potatoes have dirt on them, so keep them separate. Keep organic produce, which might carry trace amounts of manure, away from the rest of the produce selections.
Keep it dry. Coolers, steam tables, misters—all the equipment necessary to maintain appealing perishable offerings also make for build-ups of water and condensation that bacteria need to survive and grow. "You want high humidity in produce, but you don't want it dripping," says Reynolds. "A good example is in the deli case, where you can have a drip falling into a ready-to-eat product. Listeria can be introduced into the environment on someone's feet, get on the case, and drip right into the food."
Reynolds consults for a company called FreshTech that services supermarket cold cases and floral departments, placing desiccants in coolers that reduce condensation and adsorb ethylene gas that can cause over-ripening of fruits and vegetables.
Labuza has a practical addendum to the moisture issue: Make sure your misters are hooked into a clean water supply.
Test regularly. Stavrakis's FreshCheck service, now operated by Ann Arbor, Mich.-based NSF International, is a turn-key auditing service that regularly monitors sanitation systems and checks problem products for coliforms and bacteria that cause illness. Stavrakis says she started the operation because she noted that, when it came to food safety, many supermarkets tended to ignore the beast until it roared. "One of my key pieces of advice for supermarkets," she says, "is to not be afraid to test your products and know what's in them."
Be aware of limitations. Consumers want to be able to touch and inspect produce before they buy it—not the most sanitary of conditions for the product itself. "We put everything out open-air so people can touch it," says Labuza. "That's our society, we're not going to change it. But supermarkets need to be aware of the dangers involved."
"The biggest change in supermarkets over the last 20 years is that they not only became serious purveyors of fresh foods, they turned into restaurant operators and food processors as well," says Stavrakis, whose food safety monitoring business has taken her into thousands of supermarkets over the past decade. One thing supermarkets across the board do not do well, she observes, is home meal replacement, especially if they are preparing meals in-store.
Unless chains are preparing meals in centralized locations for distribution to a number of stores, they cannot afford equipment like blast chillers that keep prepared food safe from pathogens.
"Stores are an open environment," says Stavrakis. "If they are going to go big into meal replacement, they need to sell enough of it to afford to put production into a controlled environment."
"The biggest food safety problem I see at the supermarket level is that the turnover is high and the training is low and you have a lot of high school kids working," says Labuza. "You're not going to train them; it doesn't pay. Give them training and they're gone. I don't know how to change that paradigm."
The human factor is perhaps the most important, yet hardest to control, element in a store food safety program. Worker neglect, lack of education, and even sabotage can have a negative effect on every other factor.
Failure to follow simple instructions on packages is a common challenge. Deli salads, which are usually removed from sealed containers and displayed in open dishes in display cases, are a particular problem product. "If you look at an Orval Kent potato salad container, it will have a sell-by date, but also an instruction that the date applies to salad kept in that package," says Stavrakis. "Once you put it out in open containers and use different spoons in it, the shelf life is gone, yet a lot of deli personnel think the original sell-by date is still in force."
Hiring and maintaining good workers is of paramount importance to all well-run retail establishments, but there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to food safety, says Stavrakis.
"I have never been in a store where workers didn't want more information. They want to know how to do their jobs better," she observes. "But asking workers to make decisions they have no basis to make is inviting trouble.
"A good rule to follow is to let people know what they're doing right. The whole idea here is to control hazards."
There's not much a store can do about a bad batch of frozen burgers coming from a processing plant 2,000 miles away, but chain headquarters should have rigorous standards and even periodic testing in place for suppliers of frozen meats and perishable products.
Amazing things can be accomplished if the desire to provide safe and healthy products to consumers is great enough. Jeff Sholl of Minneapolis-based Sholl Group II distributes Green Giant Fresh products in the U.S. On a visit to farms in Mexico that supply product, he witnessed unbearable working conditions. Young mothers worked the fields with their young children in tow. Lavatory facilities were in short supply, and keeping fecal matter from contaminating crops was a near impossibility. Sholl stepped in to build lavatories and a child care center. With growers, he worked out a system in which a certain number of mothers rotated into the center to care for kids while the others picked product.
A supermarket chain dedicated to stocking safe product should also be dedicated to locating suppliers like Sholl. Do a little homework to find suppliers who go the extra mile for food safety. Hormel, for instance, uses an expensive, high-water-pressure process to kill pathogens on its prosciutto, a dry-cure product that undergoes no heat processing. Identify potential problem products and learn how suppliers deal with potential contaminants.
NSF International offers a service for retailers to do regular audits of suppliers, especially those providing produce, prepared frozen foods, or case-ready meats. "Most large chains mandate third-party testing of such suppliers," says NSF's v.p. of retail safety programs Nancy Culotta. If you're not one of them, you may be putting yourself—or more importantly your customers—at risk.
If a pathogen-provoked disease outbreak is traced to one of your stores, you'll have an easier time comforting customers if you already have a sterling reputation for quality and safety. There are, however, programs that can be put in place now to prepare for, or forestall, the worst.
NSF's FastCheck program is an in-store, turn-key system for dealing with spoiled food complaints. If a customer returns bad product or product suspected of causing illness, store managers have a FastCheck kit to help them deal properly with the specimen. It's placed in a collection box to keep it safe for testing. There's also a questionnaire for managers to use in collecting all pertinent information from the customer. This could help determine right away whether the product in question could have been responsible for the illness.
Unfortunately, some tragedies cannot be planned for or controlled. Last New Year's Eve, a disgruntled meat department worker named Randy Jay Bertram reported for work at the Byron Center Family Fare Supermarket in Byron Center, Mich. and allegedly poured a bottle of insecticide into a batch of ground beef that ended up sickening about 40 people. Last month, federal authorities indicted Bertram on charges that have him facing up to 30 years in prison if he is convicted.
The Family Fare supermarket kept an open line to the press, issuing a number of recalls that continued through February. What it comes down to is common sense business: Make every attempt to run a quality operation and communicate that to customers to gain their respect. That respect goes a long way when calamity strikes.
"Really, food safety initiatives are all about improving product quality while improving safety," says Stavrakis. "The result is that supermarkets get product with longer shelf life, a better-tasting product, and longer bloom on beef. It's how supermarkets get their money back for investing in food safety."