Retailers engage in food-safety efforts from the backroom to the service counter and beyond.

The analogy of a battle is frequently used to describe farm-to-plate food-safety efforts. Those at the retail level can be considered near the front lines of that fight.

Retail meat and deli cases are often the last point before the final link in the food chain, at-home consumption. To that end, retailers recognize their role in the broader food-safety coalition and take measures to ensure the safety and security of products under their respective roofs.

“Suppliers want to be sure that as their products come into our environment that they are as safe as they were at their back door. There is a real collaboration in the supply chain to maintain that,” says Jill Hollingsworth, group vice president, food safety programs, for the Washington, D.C.-based Food Marketing Institute (FMI). “As an industry, we have a responsibility for food safety from start to finish.”

Likewise, Randy Irion, director, retail marketing for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), says there are a variety of steps retailers can take to maximize their role in the safety chain.

“We want to be out there, with facts and science-based discussions, and make sure that safe-food practices are in place throughout the channel,” he says.

Getting food safety right isn’t just a good intention — it’s a must, especially after a year of big recalls and bad headlines. The 2007 version of FMI’s “U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends” showed that consumer confidence in the food supply declined significantly last year, down to 66 percent from a relatively stable 80th percentile level in previous years.

The good news is that the 2008 “U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends” report indicates that consumer confidence has climbed back up to 81 percent. Still, only 11 percent of respondents said they were “completely confident,” down from 15 percent in 2007.

When it comes to confidence in retailers, 90 percent of respondents to this year’s FMI survey agreed with the statement, “I trust that the meat, poultry and fish my grocery store sells is safe.” Again, however, a majority of respondents said they agreed only “somewhat” rather than “strongly” with that statement.

Demands of supply

To guard against recalls and outbreaks and improve consumer confidence, Hollingsworth says that battle stations should be set up along different points in the supply chain as perishable protein products move through distribution and merchandising.

“When FMI and our members are looking at food safety at the store level, we tend to put it into four categories,” she explains. The first category, she says, focuses on the supplier.

“We have a number of programs in place for that, and the biggest and newest is our Safety Quality Food Program,” she says, noting that retailers are increasingly using third-party audits to ensure that rigorous practices are implemented by suppliers. “Now, we have a more robust program with more expectations and a more organized structure and system for conducting audits based on a company’s performance and actually certifying suppliers as being in compliance.”

Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix Super Markets Inc., Lakeland, Fla., underscores the importance of relying on suppliers.

“We work hard at establishing long-term relationships with our suppliers and conduct independent audits of their facilities to ensure food safety is as important to them as it is to us,” she says, noting that Publix has a corporate quality-assurance department dedicated to food safety and sanitation.

By the book

The second category of food safety efforts to which FMI directs its attention is in-store operations, says Hollingsworth.

“In that regard, there are number of things, like best retail practices. We do a lot of work with members to understand and implement the requirements of the FDA Food Code,” she says. Best retail practices often hinge on time-tested measures.

Irion cites safe food handling, temperature control and proper cooking, among other practices, as being key areas of concern.

“One of the most critical things, that always was and always will be, is managing the cold chain. A lot of it is reminding people of the basics and making sure they are very careful,” he says.

The advent of case-ready fresh meat and deli products, which require less in-store handling and cut down on potential cross-contamination, does not mean a decreased emphasis on those practices.

“Some people have opted to go with case-ready because it eliminates some of the challenges in the backroom, but you still have to have code-dates and ensure cold chain,” Irion says.

Suzanne Driessen, an extension educator in food safety at the University of Minnesota in St. Cloud, Minn., helped developed a training module for retail meat professionals and also continually emphasizes the basics.

“Date-marking is one issue we try to stress [along with] case rotation, temperature and monitoring,” she says. Another basic but critical area in store operations is sanitation. Toby Ten Eyck, assistant professor in the department of sociology and part of the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center at Michigan State University, reports that employee hygiene was at the top of the list of concerns shared by retailers in a recent survey.

“One problem is turnover — as soon as you get someone trained, they’re gone,” he observes.

Ten Eyck shares examples of other common hygiene issues, such as an employee wearing plastic gloves who handles fresh meat and then returns to another task, like making salad.

“The other thing we found — this is mainly in restaurants, but I can see it at the deli, too — is that when things are slow, everything may be by the book, but when you get a lunch rush, all of that can go out the window,” he says.

In addition to employee hygiene, proper cleaning of surfaces and equipment remains a core issue. Hollingsworth says FMI helps members keep tabs on new sanitation technologies and applications. Driessen agrees that cleanliness is key.

“Sanitation is always an issue — finding sanitizers that will kill pathogens but also help with quality and keeping things fresh,” she says.

Sanitizers, including next-generation cleaning systems available from a variety of suppliers, can be used in retail environments for contact surfaces, grinders, slicers and other pieces of equipment. Delivery methods are also more sophisticated today, with features like automatic dispensing systems.

Driessen is quick to note that it is not just the type of sanitizer that helps prevent the growth of harmful bacteria but the way it is used. She cites a recent informal study with local grocery store inspectors, who related some recurring problems.

“One of the things they are seeing with sanitizers is the solution — people are not testing if the chemicals are right,” Driessen reports.

Staging interventions

While many interventions are applied at the processing plant level, some retailers do utilize various antimicrobials and other preventive measures in their stores.

“Mostly what we’ve seen from the research side applicable to retail is the use of organic acids sprayed on places like slicers,” says Mandy Carr, executive director for NCBA’s Beef Safety Research Safety, Nutrition and Consumer Well-being Group.

For direct application on whole-muscle cuts or ground meats, various acidic and lactic acids have been shown to be effective, she notes.

More recently, says Carr, a post-production treatment with Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB), developed through Texas Tech University, has been shown to protect meat and poultry during long-term storage.

“If you put LAB in a marinade or injection solution, it can provide an environment where pathogens don’t like to grow without impacting the product in any way,” she explains.

LAB, Carr adds, have GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status, are an approved ingredient in many foods and have been shown to have an antimicrobial effect against foodborne pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes.

Meanwhile, to gauge the effectiveness of sanitation programs, retailers have certain tools at their disposal. Driessen, for instance, says that more retailers are taking advantage of technologies like ATP-bioluminescence to detect the presence of microbes in meat and deli departments.

Strength training

Training is the third food-safety category emphasized by FMI, according to Hollingsworth.

Among other programs, FMI offers a SuperSafeMark® program to help retailers learn the requirements of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Code. According to Hollingsworth, the program includes two levels of training: one for store managers and meat and deli department managers and one for hourly or associate employees.

“For the managers, we train them to a higher level so they can be recognized as a certified safe food handler. It is a rigorous program of training, and they have to sit for an exam and pass it to get that recognition and certification,” she says.

The training for hourly and associate staff covers basic food-safety measures, like temperature monitoring and hand washing, among other steps. According to Brous, all of Publix Super Markets’ managers attend the SuperSafeMark Food Safety Training program are food-safety certified.

“In addition, after managers have attended the course and have successfully been certified, they are tasked with sharing the information with associates within their departments,” she relates.

Supermarkets can receive training through a variety of sources. The University of Minnesota’s extension program offers Retail Meat and Poultry Processing Training Modules, including train-the-trainer and certification programs for managers, to best equip meat- and deli-department managers with safety tools and information.

“One thing we are starting to stress is active managerial control. Basically, managers should always monitor and assess [safety], and we are encouraging self inspection so they know what’s going on and how to correct it,” Driessen explains.

To meet the needs of today’s retailers, groups like FMI and the University of Minnesota, along with other organizations, offer several training options. Employees can attend classroom-style sessions, with instructors and materials, or they can take online courses. Supporting materials are also available, as are DVDs and materials in various languages. Offering a range of training programs helps ensure better usage and results, says Ten Eyck.

“People are coming up with better training and more training techniques, because some people learn by watching and some learn by reading. It’s all becoming more user-friendly,” he says.

Teaching notes

Finally, retailers can optimize the safety of the food sold in their stores by serving as educators to their shoppers.

“We are the face-to-face contact with the consumer,” points out Hollingsworth, adding that many educational materials and programs stem from collaboration between industry organizations, retailers and the government.