Managing risk and exposure is one of the most important responsibilities of every grocery owner or operator. One department that deserves special scrutiny because of the extent of human contact with food on a daily basis is the deli. Risks to public health are numerous due to the potential for food contamination and the spread of bacteria. Employees are prohibited from touching food with bare hands, but that does not guarantee there will be thorough hand washing when employees are juggling customer demands, experiencing equipment challenges, or both.
While managers understand the need for training employees about the genuine risks to health and safety that can result from oversights, employees do no always act according to the training they have been given or retain the information they’ve learned. That would appear to be the case based on results from a FDA study, “Trend Analysis on Report on the Occurrence of Foodborne Illness Risk Factors in Selected Institutional Foodservice, Restaurant, and Retail Food Store Facility Types.” The lengthy FDA report tracks trends from 1998 to 2008 in all the facilities listed in the title. The findings for retail groceries, particularly those with delis, hot food bars, and fresh seafood counters, are somewhat disturbing. Nearly 57 percent were out of compliance due to improper holding in terms of time and temperature, and a surprising 26 percent for what the FDA describes as “poor personal hygiene.” The figures aren’t much better in the other departments. In the meat and poultry departments, 35 percent failed to comply due to improper holding and 19 percent were found to be non-compliant for hygiene. For the seafood departments, improper holding was only slightly improved with 34 percent non-compliant for time and temperature holding and nearly 9 percent for hygiene. These figures have to be viewed as less than satisfactory and in need of improvement. Grocers who recognize the seriousness of this situation should start by looking at the one requirement where most shortcomings can be traced—the lack of effective training.
Whether the retail business is part of a grocery store chain or an independent store, training is often limited and not fully understood.
Food Safety Pitfalls
Food handling is one training discipline that deserves examination. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), improper food handling is the cause of 97 percent of food poisoning incidents. Many of these foodborne illness outbreaks have been traced to food manufacturers and processors, but that does not eliminate risk at the retail grocery level. The CDC warns that vegetables and fruits can become contaminated during storage—a point of concern to anyone selling fresh produce or deli meats. The CDC attributes other incidents to improper disinfecting of food preparation surfaces and cross contamination, all of which require training in proper handling and contamination avoidance. Another subject of obvious concern to the CDC as well as the FDA is inadequate hand-washing—an issue that is widespread.
Cross contamination in salad bars from such allergens as seafood, shellfish, and peanuts is another public health risk for grocers. “You have to train employees to be aware that they can’t have one salad close enough to contaminate another salad,” says Scott Esqueda, assistant vice president of Argo Insurance—U.S. Grocery and Retail, Portland, Ore. “They have to be trained to place the salad in another section of the case so that there is no chance of cross contamination.” The insurance executive also emphasizes the need for ongoing training in two other areas: Accurate time and temperatures for heated food and personal hygiene. “I think everybody could do more training,” Esqueda says.
Whether the retail business is part of a grocery store chain or an independent store, training is often limited and not fully understood. One reason may be because the employees are overwhelmed with responsibilities and they do not completely absorb the concepts of proper hygiene and food safety. Similarly, food handlers at a deli or meat counter may not always recognize the risk posed from touching a cell phone even though their hands may be covered. An article in the April 2010 issue of Progressive Grocer notes that a national survey of best practices in retail groceries found that a glaring reason for low performance management scores was inadequate training. “Specific comments on the survey described a lack of training for themselves and especially for management,” the article reports. It also finds a “correlation” between the low performance management scores and “how well they score in overall operations and profits.”