There are risks to food safety throughout all aspects of the meat-production process, from the farm all the way to the dinner table. One of the most critical points is that link between the processors and consumers: retail and foodservice.

The safety of meat products sold through retail and foodservice has gotten a lot more attention in recent months. The recall of ground beef produced by Omaha, Neb.-based Nebraska Beef Ltd. because of E. coli O157:H7 contamination is the latest of major recalls in recent years. Companies have taken action to quickly protect consumers and ensure food safety.

Many supermarkets chains, which were the companies hit hardest in the last recall, have set procedures in place to deal quickly with this type of massive recall.

At the counter

“At Supervalu, the safety of our employees and customers, as well as the communities in which we operate and conduct business, is No. 1 priority,” says Susie Bell, corporate affairs manager for supermarket owner Supervalu Inc. in Eden Prairie, Minn. The company requires vendor partners to adhere to all food-safety regulations. It also works closely with regulatory and government agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Upon notification of a recall, Supervalu’s food-safety and quality-assurance teams take immediate action to identify if any of the company’s stores (which cover several brands across the country) or distribution centers carries the recalled product, and communicates the recall information and required action to all affected outlets. At the same time, information is provided to public affairs and customer-service representatives at each of the store brands and supply-chain services so that they can provide accurate information about the recall and any steps taken by Supervalu to both customers and the media.

The company’s internal efforts are lead by John Hanlin, Ph.D., vice president of food safety, and a team of industry professionals. This team includes a director of retail food safety at the corporate level as well as food-safety directors at each of Supervalu’s retail banners such as Jewel-Osco, Albertson’s and Shop ’n Save.

Everyone who works at the retail level needs to have a strong grasp of proper handling and storage for meats, both at the deli and at the butcher’s counter.

“While we may not have tracked down the cause of the current widely publicized food-safety problems in the food industry, the fact remains that most foodborne illness comes from cross-contamination and improper holding temperatures,” says Karen Peckham, education information specialist for Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA).

The organization also offers food-safety training programs aimed at front-line deli and bakery associates, ranging from free resources on its Web site, to 15-minute videos, to longer video and workbook certificate programs.

The danger zone for meat safety is between 41 and 135 degrees F.

“Most bacteria grow slowly or are killed at temperatures below 41 and above 135,” Peckham says. “Foods should be heated or cooled aggressively to move through the danger zone as quickly as possible. Equipment must be set so that hot foods are held above 135 and cold foods are held below 41.”

Peckham also offers basic advice on helping maintain food safety, especially at the deli counter.

“Cross-contamination can occur when surfaces and utensils are not cleaned properly when switching between working with raw and ready-to-eat foods,” she says. “This includes washing hands and changing gloves.”

Also, raw foods should not be stored above ready-to-eat products so as to prevent drippings from contaminating prepared foods.

In storage areas and retail cases, products should be rotated on a first-in-first-out (FIFO) basis that older products with shorter shelf lives are used or sold first. When receiving a shipment, all boxes should be clearly labeled with the date.

And while it should be a given in the meat industry, it is important to stress the personal hygiene of workers.

“All associates must be taught how to thoroughly wash their hands — and when to wash their hands,” Peckham says. “They should also be taught to leave jewelry at home when coming to work. Associates who work in food preparation or serving areas should also wear hair restraints.”

On the front line

The routine for foodservice companies is similar. The National Restaurant Association (NRA), based in Washington, D.C., has taken steps to formalize food safety in the foodservice industry, says Maureen Ryan, media relations manager. In October 2008, the organization will sponsor a foodservice conference dedicated to providing the information and training on food safety at every point in the supply chain.

Working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the FDA, and local jurisdictions, the NRA and its members have started making investments in improving food safety and developing state-of-the-art food-safety education programs.

One of those programs is ServSafe. The program began 34 years ago, with a fifth edition released in March 2008.

The ServSafe Food Protection Manager Certification Examination has been accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI)-Conference for Food Protection (CFP). It is based on a job-task analysis that defines the knowledge food-safety managers should know. Course materials and examination are available in several languages including English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean.

“The U.S. food supply is the safest in the world, but it can be better, and our 21st-century marketplace means we must evolve our food-safety and regulatory approaches to keep pace with new science and a global economy,” Ryan says.

Sodexo Inc., based in Gaithersburg, Md., is one of the foodservice corporations using ServSafe. Jaya Bohlman, vice president of public relations, says that the company requires all foodservice managers and supervisors to be certified in food safety every three years, which exceeds most government and health department requirements.

“Sodexo works closely with our client and facility partners to ensure that sanitation is at a premium and the facilities match our culinary and food-safety needs,” she says. “In the normal course of Sodexo’s operation of thousands of foodservice locations, health department inspections are a routine and important part of our operations.”

The program is part of the company’s regular training, which begins when employees are hired. Sodexo trains its employees on how to prevent cross-contamination and provides them with tools to do so, such as color-coded cutting boards that can only be used to prepare specific food items, as well as training foodservice workers on proper hand-washing techniques, proper use of disposable gloves, and not allowing sick employees to handle food.

The company also actively monitors current events in food-safety across the world. Bohlman says that if there is a situation or investigation associated with a product that may be used in the company’s operations, it will take immediate action and implement the food safety alert system.

“This broad communication system is designed to attain usable, pertinent facts and direction about any given situation to our units in a timely manner,” Bohlman says. “This provides our customers and clients valuable knowledge of current events which results in confidence in our services.”

Bohlman says that each year the company puts significant resources toward food safety and training. Sodexo’s food-safety program incorporates Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) as a proactive and comprehensive food-safety and self-inspection system that goes beyond the routine. A third-party audit process evaluates the effectiveness of these systems within the operations.

Foodservice companies like Sodexo are in an interesting position because, due to their contracts, they often must operate in aging facilities, operating in a space that is not owned, managed or designed by the company, all while managing a network of thousands of national, regional and local product vendors.

“Sodexo has invested in the creation of a strong team of quality-assurance and food-safety experts who provide comprehensive technical support for each of its 6,000 accounts in North America,” says Bohlman. “This includes resources to validate the food-safety programs at these unique locations, facility evaluations designed to enhance existing on-site food safety programs, and review of the processes in each of unit through an independent third-party evaluation.”