In light of ongoing safety concerns, is the industry doing enough to protect the food supply?
By Richard Turcsik
Grape tomatoes. They are juicy, sweet and the perfect addition to salads and numerous recipes. Oh, and for a week in late April/early May they were downright dangerous, when possible salmonella contamination prompted retailers, including Safeway, to pull them from store shelves.
That incident was quickly overshadowed by an E. coli outbreak that wreaked havoc in Europe. Then Dutch authorities recalled red beet sprouts that were infected with yet another strain of E. coli.
Is this rash of recalls a sign that the industry is slacking a bit when it comes to food safety?
“Bacteria evolve and change, so this is not necessarily a new and emerging crisis,” says Scott Hurd, associate professor, College of Veterinary Medicine at Ames, Iowa-based Iowa State University and a former deputy undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Adding to the challenges is the fact that germs apparently like to rack up the frequent flier miles. Outbreaks can spread quickly throughout the globe, so Hurd stresses that the domestic produce and retail industries keep their guard up. “Vegetable growers and produce people already have good HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical and Control Points] in mind. If I were a retailer I would do whatever they say with a vengeance right now. Don’t shortcut anything.”
Leading-edge grocers are implementing the latest technologies to bolster their food safety efforts, says Tom Kozenski, vice president of product strategy at Alpharetta, Ga.-based RedPrairie. “You can normally tell how good a software system a retailer has based on what they say on the news,” he says. “You’ll hear about somebody issuing a recall asking customers who bought everything from anyplace to send it all back and then there are others who say it is this lot code which was put on the shelf this date in these specific stores in Iowa and Minnesota. Those people have their act together from a recall or safety standpoint.”
It can be challenging to manage recalls in a store environment where the staff does not necessarily rotate inventory and customers do not always reach for the first item on the shelf. “One of the capabilities that we have around a recall is that if corporate gets a notification from their supplier that a certain lot code is bad, they can go to a computer, hit a button and all of that lot code gets frozen in the warehouse,” he says. “If it is on a truck in the yard they won’t let them ship it and we’ll send instructions to the store to disable that item at the register.”
In that scenario, a message will flash on the register alerting the cashier not to sell it. “The problem is you might get an energetic employee who knows the SKU and says they will override it to help the customer. Well, that is the last thing you want to do when it doesn’t scan,” Kozenski says.
Sophisticated pallet-tracking capabilities can also help in the event of a food recall, says Lewis Taffer, chief marketing officer of iGPS, a plastic pallet rental firm based in Orlando, Fla. According to Taffer, each iGPS pallet has four RFID tags embedded in it. He says that can help eliminate the need for national recalls by intercepting the infected product. “These pallets are scanned when a manufacturer ships out produce and scanned in on the other end, so it’s an excellent way of keeping track of produce, which is one of the things that the FDA is going to start requiring. Because each pallet has a unique serial number, we know where that pallet is going and when it has arrived. In the event there should be some outbreak, a manufacturer can very easily and surgically identify where the tainted goods are,” he says.
The rise of organic produce
Outbreaks will likely become a bigger issue in the future, especially as organic produce becomes more commonplace, says Iowa State’s Hurd. “Because we are using natural fertilizers—also known as manure—we are programmed to get more of these bacteria, especially E. coli and salmonella, in the veggies,” he says. “And while washing and peeling produce may be helpful, it is certainly not 100% preventative. Salmonella can definitely get inside the plant, so just washing it is not going to help.”
That is why vegetables grown hydroponically—in water instead of soil in a sheltered greenhouse environment—offer an edge when it comes to safety, says Doug Kling, senior vice president, chief sales and marketing officer for Village Farms, the Eatontown, N.J.-based operator of hydroponic greenhouses in Texas and Delta, British Columbia, Canada. “Our vegetables are grown with purified water that doesn’t go through trenches, ground streams or anything else that can carry contamination,” he says. “Also, our hydroponic greenhouses are all sheltered. They are steel and glass, so outside bacteria from birds flying over the fields and other animal droppings are eliminated.”
Of course not all produce can be grown hydroponically. The vast majority is still grown the good, old-fashioned way—in microbe-rich soil where E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens can also lurk. Cincinnati-based Chiquita Fresh Express is ensuring its salads are safe by instituting Fresh Rinse, a patent-pending produce wash invented by Fresh Express scientist Dr. Kai Lai “Grace” Ho that rinses salad greens with a combination of lactic acid and peracetic acid. “When these two ingredients are combined we’ve seen a superior impact and effectiveness on potential food borne pathogens in leafy greens and lettuce,” says Mike Burness, vice president of global quality and food safety for Chiquita and Fresh Express.
The results are “nothing short of incredible,” he says. “We saw over 1 million times more efficacy, or the ability to eliminate the pathogen E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella, with Fresh Rinse versus the traditional chlorine sanitizer that is widely used in the industry.”
Fresh Rinse will be highlighted on new packaging and Fresh Rinse technology “is available to anyone that wants to use it in the industry,” Burness says.
“What Fresh Express has done here is raise the bar significantly,” says Dr. David Acheson, managing director for food safety in the Washington, D.C., office of Leavitt Partners, a Salt Lake City-based consulting firm. “They’ve taken gold to platinum in terms of this million-fold extra destruction,” he says.
America’s meat producers are also doing their part to make the nation’s meat supply safer. Since 1993, beef producers have invested $29 million in research focusing on E. coli, along with salmonella and listeria, says James “Bo” Reagan, senior vice president, research, education and innovation for the Denver-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
“Our major focus has been in the area of E. coli because that’s where we had issues in ‘93,” Reagan says. “One of the things that we’re very pleased about is the Healthy People Goal that USDA and the CDC set for 2010, which is to have fewer than one illness per 100,000 population. With respect to E. coli, we actually met that goal a couple of years before 2010, so we’re very pleased about that.”
Of course more work needs to be done, and Reagan says the industry needs to strengthen its relationship with retailers. “We look to the retailers to be that final link between us and the consumer,” he says. “Have safe handling labels on all of your packages of beef. Any kind of information—posters, handouts—that you can have that focus on safety is very important to help relay that message to the consumer about the proper way to handle the product.”
E. coli should be a lesser threat to the nation’s beef supply now that Pfizer has developed a vaccine for it. Given by needle three times prior to the animal being harvested, the vaccine blocks the ability of E. coli to adhere to the animal’s intestinal walls. According to Pfizer, its vaccine has reduced the number of cattle testing positive for E. coli by 85%.
“We’ve done just about all we can do in these food packing plants from a food safety standpoint,” says Dr. Brad Morgan, food safety specialist in the Stillwater, Okla., office of Madison, N.J.-based Pfizer Animal Health. “In some cases they may have five or six interventions on the slaughterhouse floor, but we’re looking at what we can do to a live animal to help manage and reduce E. coli O157:H7 in those animals going to the packing plant.”
While currently licensed for beef and dairy cattle, Morgan says the vaccine can be used for other species. It was originally developed to reduce salmonella in turkeys.
Over the years the nation’s pork supply has become increasingly safer, says Steve Larsen, director of pork safety for the National Pork Board, based in Des Moines, Iowa. It is so safe that the USDA recently lowered pork’s suggested cooking temperature to 145 degrees from 160 degrees. That’s because while many consumers have a Charlotte’s Web image of barnyard pigsties crawling with Templeton rats, today the vast majority of the nation’s hogs are raised indoors. “If you move animals indoors you eliminate exposure to rodents, bird droppings and all of that disease-carrying stuff,” Larsen says.
Many product recalls stem from the deli case, where listeria and salmonella are the most common culprits. Initiatives by leading manufacturers are looking to drastically reduce, if not eliminate, that risk. Bridgewater, N.J.-based Applegate Farms, a purveyor of natural lunchmeats, has an entire protocol that goes above industry standards and which all of its suppliers and co-packers must adhere to, says Diane Kull, vice president of new product development and quality assurance.
“Since we are a natural and organic company we have relied on sodium lactate as a microbiological inhibitor, which reduces the growth of bacteria over time,” she says. “This year Applegate made an investment in high-pressure pasteurization, which essentially kills practically all bacteria present in the products.”
Look for commercial deli salads to also become safer, now that Des Moines, Iowa-based Kemin Industries has introduced SHIELD FL for use in preserving deli salads. “SHIELD FL can prolong shelf life and does help inhibit the growth of bacteria,” says Betsy Blades, marketing manager, Food Technologies Division, at Kemin. “SHIELD FL is a cost effective alternative to preservatives because it is a highly concentrated product that works at low treatment levels, and the liquid formulation allows for accurate inclusion that yields consistent results.”
Retailers can further cut down on pathogens in the deli/bakery area by making sure their employees swab countertops, slicers, scales and other equipment with sanitizing wipes between customers. “Those pieces of equipment are not easy to clean with a spray bottle and dishrag,” says Matt Schiering, vice president, general manager for Sani Professional, a division of Orangeburg, N.Y.-based Nice-Pak.
Cleaning with a wipe helps stop the spread of pathogens that might be present on one food item or piece of equipment and can be unwittingly spread by employees who don’t change their gloves often enough. “You have to be able to sanitize, clean up for the employees in between touch points and take care of the surfaces that come into contact with food items,” he says.
Supermarkets can also improve the safety in their perishables departments by teaming with Applied Data Corp (ADC)., the Tampa, Fla.-based provider of management systems for fresh items, scales and recipes. “When it comes to recipe management, you enter your recipe and we tear down the food safety facts and publish it to just about any scale on the market,” says Jan Dragotta, vice president of sales and marketing. That alerts consumers about any possible allergens, and also includes calorie and nutrition information and cooking and safe handling information, he says.
“The more you increase your accuracy and capability to be more accurate, the less you’ll be suffering liability,” Dragotta says. “You can mitigate onerous punitive damages in a lawsuit because you can show that you are doing everything humanely possible. We provide that technology.”
The products entering the supermarket may be safer, but retailers need to take steps to ensure that the store environment itself is as safe as can be. A first step is to make the store as rodent-proof as possible, says Steve Graff, quality assurance manager at Abell Pest Control, based in Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada. “It comes down to figuring out where the rodents are getting into the building and also figuring out how they are traveling through the grocery store,” he says. “We find they like to use ceiling voids and sometimes we’ve seen where there was an old refrigerant system or piping in the floor and they changed the store layout, but left those old tunnels and chases there. Until you figure that out, pests can be difficult to control.”
Graff recommends stores have an exterminator visit twice a month. “Pest control is a lot more on the preventative side now,” he says, adding that there has been increased interest in organic and natural pest control products.
Shopping carts are another area retailers need to worry about [see sidebar]. Grocers can clean up their carts—and their image—by putting a canister of Sani-Cloth Wipes from Sani Professional next to their shopping carts at the store entrance. “The average percentage of customers who pull a wipe on their way into the store is only 7%, but you get an awful lot of credit from those who don’t even bother to pull a wipe just for having it there,” says Schiering.
There is a bit of a debate about whether stores should offer surface disinfectants for carts or topical skin sanitizers, Schiering points out. “It is about a 50/50 split in the marketplace right now, although the balance is tipping towards skin antiseptics,” he says.
Keeping a store spic-and-span is hard, detailed, time-consuming work, which is why many retailers turn to professional service firms. They have a new option in that field now that Cintas, the Cincinnati-based company best known for its uniform rental service, has forged a relationship with Diversey, the chemical cleaner company based in Sturtevant, Wis. Under the agreement, Cintas is providing a selection of proprietary commercial cleaners under the Signet Cleaning Chemical Service brand name to its customers.
“We bring the cycle of clean to our customers,” says Brian Garry, senior director of foodservice, at Cintas.
“Cintas gives us access to the market that we have not had before—in a very unique way,” says John Alexander, president, Americas, at Diversey. “That’s because they are not just selling the product, but really selling the service of maintaining those operations for restaurants and supermarkets.”
“The Signet brand represents a promise of the product efficacy that Diversey brings along with the service and value proposition that Cintas brings,” says Mike Jenkins, vice president of marketing, at Diversey. Signet products include floor care, hard surface cleaners and manual wear wash.
“We’ve taken the time to train the Cintas sales people around food safety and how the products work,” Alexander says. “We have an infrastructure in place to support the roll out.
Making food safety palletable
Think of it as the backroom version of the paper vs. plastic debate. When it comes to selecting a pallet system to transport groceries is it better to stick with the traditional wood or go with the newer plastic versions? Both offer advantages, according to their suppliers.
Lewis Taffer, chief marketing officer at iGPS, the Orlando, Fla.-based plastic pallet rental service, says from a food safety standpoint there are different characteristics between plastic and wood. “Wood is an absorptive material by its very nature,” he says. “That’s a big food safety issue, especially for multi-use pallets. If liquids from food seep into that wood you have a situation where bacteria can grow.”
Plus, wooden pallets have nails. “A nail in a wooden pallet can pierce a cardboard box and create a pathway for bacteria and pathogens to travel,” Taffer says.
However, loose nails aren’t a problem when the pallets are sourced from a pooling service, according to officials from Orlando, Fla.-based CHEP. “We do a 100% inspection of all the pallets when they come back to us and before we send them out to somebody else,” says Skip Miller, vice president of quality and customer value. “We repair them if necessary. If there is a spill on a plank we can replace it and we have wash processes. The pallets are washed and then inspected again to make sure that the contaminant has been removed. If it cannot then we take that pallet out of the system.”
Miller says that CHEP also guarantees its pallets have not been treated with TBP (tribromophenol) a wood fungicide that Johnson & Johnson blamed for a recall of Tylenol, Motrin and other medicines last fall after consumers complained of feeling sick from an unusual odor. “To ensure that we do not have any TBP we have a third party company visit all of our lumber suppliers twice a month and pull a random lumber sample and we do a physical test on it to make sure it meets our specifications. We also send it to a lab to be tested for any chemical contamination,” Miller says.