A vast array of safety and security measures ensures our food supply is the safest it’s ever been.
By Richard Turcsik
Face it. The world isn’t as safe a place as it used to be. But while the supermarket and food processing industries can’t do much in the way of thwarting terrorist car bombings and nuclear-armed rogue nations, they’re doing an awesome job of reducing incidences of foodborne illness and contamination “from farm to fork.” That includes supermarket back rooms, workstations and selling floors.
In fact, while reports of E. coli tainted romaine lettuce and batches of bad salami still make national news, the industry has made great strides in catching outbreaks when they first occur and stopping them from happening altogether. A vast and ever-increasing array of tools—from X-ray machines to misters, drain purges, testing swabs and germ-killing wipes—are readily available to farmers, manufacturers, processors and retailers. If a contaminated product gets past these safeguards, software programs and websites are making the job of pulling tainted product off of the shelf faster and easier.
“Our food supply is really the safest it’s ever been,” says Megan DeStefano, global product manager for DuPont Qualicon, the industrial diagnostics division of Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont. “We have better and better tools to understand where foodborne illness is coming from.”
Educating customers about proper food handling and cooking practices is a good place to start when it comes to reducing the incidents of foodborne illness, experts say.
“In today’s world as retailers try to offer more solutions to customers, providing some simple information on food handling can go a long way,” says Bill Bishop, president of Willard Bishop Consulting, based in Barrington, Ill. “Give them guidelines on temperature, using cutting boards, etc. That can be very helpful for people who are just learning or never knew how to cook.”
Retailers can build good will by touting what they are doing to keep their food safe, Bishop notes. “The temperature and cold chain control that a retailer may be doing is worth advertising to build confidence in the system,” he says.
They can also join the Partnership for Food Safety Education, the Washington-based non-profit creator of the Fight Bac!—as in bacteria—consumer education campaign. The Partnership is also co-creator of Be Food Safe, a public relations campaign that spreads the “Clean. Separate. Cook. Chill.” message to consumers.
“We’re really excited about the possibilities with retailers,” says Shelley Feist, executive director. “Many have shown a lot of interest, but I think where the opportunity is and where the Partnership could use more financial support as well as expert input is on leveraging the ability of grocery retailers to get these messages to customers,” she says.
Retailers can license the organization’s Be Food Safe platform for free. When they do they receive information from the Partnership about campaigns, seasonal food safety initiatives and other efforts. “We design things like flyers, ads, shelf wobblers and press release templates,” Feist says.
Retailers can further ensure the safety of the actual products in their stores by working closely with trade associations such as FMI, NGA and PMA.
“As a trade association, one of the things we can do to help the retail sector is to work with our members to identify all of the tools and support materials that they can use to achieve their food safety goals,” says Jill Hollingsworth, DVM, group vice president, food safety programs, at the Food Marketing Institute, based in Arlington, Va.
A veterinarian by trade, Hollingsworth points out that there are different ways of approaching food safety. “Food safety covers many areas, not just the production of safe food, but also sanitation, employee health and hygiene, and even areas like recalls and understanding federal rules and regulations and how to comply with them,” she says.
FMI offers Safemark training courses for the retail environment, covering a variety of topics, including personal hygiene and when to determine if an employee is too sick to be on the job. “We have textbooks and if a store chooses they can do classroom training,” Hollingsworth says. “We have trainers throughout the country, people who are qualified and recognized as adult education trainers in food safety. Plus, a number of our larger retail companies have an in-house food safety trainer.” Online training is also available and has proven to be more popular with younger employees, she adds.
Trade associations also work as an industry go-between with federal agencies, says Dr. Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer at the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association. “We spend a lot of time in the government relations area working with the FDA, USDA and CDC, and up on the Hill,” he notes. “We’re one of the associations that have asked for regulation in food safety. We spend a good amount of time working with folks and trying to get them familiar with some of the processes and complexities of our industries. We see ourselves as a group that helps the various agencies, legislators and regulators find solutions.”
Visit the PMA Fresh Summit convention in October and you’ll find a heavy emphasis on food safety, with sessions geared to the latest hot button topics, like traceability. PMA also conducts a series of “see level” symposia. “We go out and talk to the decision makers in our industry,” Whitaker says. “It’s not really so much of a science presentation of food safety, but a business argument for doing food safety.”
Noting that 50% of the nation’s produce is now imported, Whitaker says PMA has been working with the FDA about using audit systems and third-party auditors to ensure that imported product is as safe as anything grown domestically.
As more produce is pre-cut and pre-packaged a different set of safety risks arises. “If you have a lot of cut surfaces where you are exposing nutrients where bacteria could live on then temperature management becomes extremely important,” Whitaker says.
When it comes to lettuce, for example, contamination can occur during the crisping process, when the heads are rehydrated by dumping them in a large water-filled washtub in the backroom and letting them soak for five to 10 minutes and then putting them in a cooler overnight. “Water is a great transfer vector and if one head has E. coli on it everything else in that sink will become cross-contaminated,” says Geoff Koontz, marketing director, at Malvern, Pa.-based Sterilox Food Safety.
According to Koontz, 99.99% of that risk can be eliminated by employing the Sterilox system. “We generate a food safe sanitizing system using salt water and electricity,” he says. “It’s simple, eco-friendly and natural and done by using our proprietary electrolysis technology that is highly effective at killing bacteria, spoilage organisms like yeast and mold and any pathogens.”
Sterilox can be used for any fruit or vegetable and can also be tied into the sales floor misting system, he says. “By dosing into the misting line we keep the cases much cleaner because we knock the bacteria off of the product, and the system doesn’t have to be cleaned as often.”
But what about produce such as raspberries that can harbor pathogens, but can’t be immersed in water? Officials from East Hartford, Conn.-based Bio Safe Systems say its FogTunnel machine addresses that problem. “It sanitizes the surface and doesn‘t need a rinse afterwards,” says Michael Larose, agricultural manager.
“The fog permeates into all of the little nooks and crannies on a fruit and vegetable where those bacteria and spores are hiding, which traditional methods may not be able to reach,” says Tom Garcia, post harvest sanitation manager.
Garcia says Bio Safe is working on developing a supermarket version of the system that would replace produce misters.
Moving beyond the produce department, there are numerous options are available to retailers to make their stores more sterile.
Atlanta-based Zep offers a full array of hand and skincare products in a variety of touch-free and pump dispensers for the selling floor and the backroom.
“A lot of food retailers are looking to build their brand, so we are branding some of the more visible aspects of the sanitation program,” says Blaine Morton, director of marketing and business development-food.
Zep has also created a larger cart wipes dispenser. “Ours hold 525 wipes on every roll, so the labor is greatly reduced,” Morton says.
One of Zep’s newest products is the Zep Biofilm Drain Purge, designed to control biofilms—the slime on the surface of drains—that harbor microbial pathogens such as Listeria.
The Steritech Group, Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based food safety firm that started out as a pest control company, offers retailers on-premise inspections of their practices and procedures. “We do an audit of the store, looking at procedures, like whether everything is kept cold, if employees are washing their hands, wearing gloves, hairnets, and all of the other things associated with procedural food safety in the grocery store,” says Beth Cannon, manager, technical research and regulatory affairs.
Inspections are always done unannounced, Cannon says, unless there’s a specific request for an inspection to root out a problem.
“Typically our specialists come in every quarter or every six months,” Cannon says. “So we’re definitely there more frequently than the board of health and are giving the store a heads up to any issues well in advance of a board of health inspection,” she says.
The increasing awareness of food allergies coupled with a greater use of third-party meal components has placed a greater burden on retailers when it comes to ingredient panels. “There is a complexity that the government is interjecting with more and more rigid requirements for things like trans fat reporting, country of origin labeling, traceability information and born-on dates,” says Jan Dragotta, vice president of sales and marketing at ADC, the Tampa, Fla.-based provider of food safety tags.
“We have developed a single application that integrates recipe management, scales management and all of the in-store production processes into one total solution set,” he says. “A retailer enters a recipe into our system and we tear it down by its most basic elements in grams and kilograms and shove that data automatically out to the scale.”
ADC’s systems allow retailers to track a case of meat that’s cut up and used in foodservice operations, for example, which can help should there be a recall. Likewise, should headquarters change the ingredient in a recipe, like a cake frosting supplier, that information is automatically sent to all of the chain’s stores.
Seeking safe suppliers
Many retailers are trying to improve their food safety by seeking out reliable suppliers. Several upscale chains, for example, offer their customers only beef from Windom, Minn.-based PM Beef Group because it is SQF (Safe Quality Food) certified, by the FMI division. The company’s beef harvest facility, what used to be called a slaughterhouse, is SQF Level 3, the highest ranking available.
“SQF 3 means you have to train everyone in your company—all employees—on all aspects of food safety, safe handling of food, good sanitation practices, HACCP,” says John Hagerla, vice president of global marketing and sales.
According to Hagerla, PM Beef is safer than meat from factory farms because its cattle are raised by family farmers in Minnesota. “These farmers have good sanitation practices that are adhered to by third-party auditors,” he says.
PM only ships whole muscle meats. Retailers buying ground beef from a third party can help ensure that it is free of bone and metal fragments by specifying that the supplier use an X-ray machine as a quality control measure, says Gerry Smith, sales director at Novus X-Ray, based in Lambertville, N.J.
“A common problem with meat is from marinating needles breaking and our units will pick up bone,” says Smith. “The advantage of X-raying is that you have that physical image of the product that can be stored as evidence,” in the event of a lawsuit, he adds.
Many manufacturers are using DuPont Qualicon’s BAX System as a safety measure. “BAX gives customers a simple way to detect bacteria quality, enabling them to minimize risk before releasing food to market,” says DeStefano. Once BAX determines the presence of bacteria, it is placed in a RiboPrinter, which determines what type of bacteria it is and where it came from.
“One of our customers is the USDA and they use us to protect the U.S. food supply,” DeStefano says. “Our system can help detect a pathogen before the shipment goes out and therefore prevent a recall.”
Once food is shipped to the warehouse, many warehouse managers are employing Voxware, a system that replaces the manual tasks of using clipboards and scanning with voice-activated software. “We have a lot of grocery customers who collect information regarding country of origin and lot numbers,” says CEO Scott Yetter.
According to Steve Gerrard, Voxware’s vice president of marketing, much of the information needed for the Produce Traceability Initiative simply isn’t captured because it was never required before, and that can add up to an added expense that is sent through the supply chain. “Our customers have been talking to us about how they can capture this information without having to raise prices unrealistically high or reduce margins,” he says. “You need to be able to make sure that at the point where the food is being handled that the correct steps are being taken.”