It’s not the sexiest job in the store, nor does it lead directly to sales, although ultimately it can affect sales if left unattended. It can be one of the greatest services you can offer your customers, even though when done well, they will never even know. If ignored, however, they will not only know about it but may choose to shop elsewhere.
I’m talking, of course, about food safety, a practice that admittedly no one thinks a waste of time, but one for which many retailers rely on common sense, working more or less as they would at home in their own kitchen. The trouble with that way of thinking is that there are usually many hands in the pie, so to speak, and without sound food safety standards in your store, it’s hard to control what everyone else is doing. And if you don’t think this is an issue that applies to you, consider that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 80 million people develop food-borne illnesses each year in the United States, sending 325,000 to the hospital, 5,000 of which result in death. In other words, just because it has not happened to you, doesn’t mean it’s not happening or won’t happen in your store.
An Ounce of Prevention
It all basically boils down to this: food becomes unsafe due to any one of three things – time/temperature abuse, cross-contamination and cleanliness or poor personal hygiene on the part of the food handlers (including receiving clerks, stockers, cooks, dishwashers, sales counter staff and anyone else who comes into contact with the food). The secret to food safety and the aversion of a crisis, therefore, lies in monitoring and controlling these three areas. In addition, you need to have a plan in place in case you do have a food safety crisis.
As to the first of our trio of food safety land mines, time/temperature abuse, this is the one that is likely the biggest offender, both in the store and at home. Quite simply, you need to ensure that hot foods stay hot and cold foods stay cold. Oven thermometers and instant-read thermometers, as well as refrigerator and freezer thermometers will help considerably to help maintain the correct temperatures whether you are cooking or storing food. Here are a few more tips for you and your staff to remember:
• Allow cooked foods to cool to room temperature before wrapping them tightly with plastic wrap and storing in the refrigerator or freezer.
• Never let raw meat, fish or poultry sit out at room temperature for more than two hours, and not more than one hour if the temperature is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Always practice FIFO (first in, first out) when stocking foods in the refrigerator or display cases to ensure that food is at its Freshest.
• There are three acceptable ways to defrost foods: in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave. Never thaw foods at room Temperature.
• Always marinate raw meats, poultry and fish in the Refrigerator.
• Don’t overstuff the refrigerator. The air must be able to circulate freely to effectively maintain cold temperatures. This is often a problem in home kitchens.
The kind of cross-contamination that often occurs in the home – putting a cooked chicken back on a dirty platter or cutting board in which the raw chicken once sat; adding uncooked marinade to the finished dish; using the knife you used to cut the chicken to cut the salad greens, etc. – rarely happens in a commercial kitchen because, presumably, professional cooks know better. However, here are some tips to remember:
• Never add a raw marinade to a finished dish.
• Don’t store raw meat, fish or poultry in the walk-in above vegetables or other foods. Always keep foods that could drip on the bottom shelf.
• Don’t prep raw meat, poultry or fish next to foods that are to be eaten raw, like salad greens.
• Make certain that raw meats and such are contained in a proper container before transporting them through the kitchen or prep Area.
• Do we need to say this? Make certain that cooked food is cut on clean cutting boards with clean Knives.
• Always maintain clear paperwork on all the perishable foods in your kitchen. Know when they were received, when they were cooked, etc. Mark every container with the date and time it was stored, partly to be sure it doesn’t stay around too long and partly to maintain FIFO. The paperwork should extend to the life of that food while it is in your store. You should be able to read the history of a dish backwards from the time it left the store to the raw ingredients used, who made it and when. All this might sound like a lot of work until Mrs. Johnson’s lawyer calls from the emergency Room.
The last issue regarding food safety is cleanliness; first and foremost, the cleanliness of the staff. All your efforts will be for naught if an employee is handling the food with dirty hands. You can’t stress enough the importance of employees washing their hands with soap and hot water, and not only before and after handling food, but whenever they sneeze, cough, eat, scratch their heads, or use the restroom. Never allow employees who are ill to handle food. Clean also means your tools as well as your hands. Cutting boards, work surfaces, knives and other tools should all be kept spotlessly clean and recleaned throughout the day. Use a mild bleach solution to sterilize work surfaces and allow to air-dry.
The Customer is Always Right, Even When They are Wrong
Okay, so you’ve done everything right. Your receiving procedures are impeccable and your walk-ins are immaculate. Your FIFO system is working like a well-oiled Swiss watch, and there is more hand-washing going on than in a Senate subcommittee. Your cold food is cold enough and your hot food is hot enough, and you can trace every ingredient back to the time of day it was picked. By Jove, you’re set. Nothing could possibly go wrong now. That’s when you get the phone call from Mrs. Jones saying her daughter is ill from the seafood salad she purchased at your store yesterday, failing to mention that she left it in a hot car for several hours while she ran errands. Meanwhile, the Singes have forgotten their tuna sandwiches in the sun while they played volleyball, and another customer has roasted a chicken, only to carve it on the same unwashed cutting board on which she had cut the bird up. Never mind that they are all at fault. They all bought the food at your store, they are all sick, and they are all calling you.
It’s the last piece of the food safety puzzle and the one over which you have the least control – the consumer. You can do everything you can to ensure that the food from your store is clean and safe right up to the point where it leaves the checkout area. But now that same food is in the hands of the consumer and beyond your control, and yet if anyone gets ill, they will hold you responsible before they will take any responsibility for their own carelessness or ignorance of proper food handling. You will no doubt encounter otherwise intelligent and responsible people who will do the stupidest things with their food, and yet have no idea that they did anything wrong. This means that you will have to do everything you can to educate your customers on how to safely shop for, cook, serve and store food. And it begins in the shopping cart..
There are several good ways to educate your customers about proper food safety, including signage, pamphlets, seminars and demos, and through your store newsletter. But before you teach them how to handle food at home, teach them how to shop. For example, it’s a good idea to shop for the most perishable items last. Fish, fresh dairy products, poultry, eggs and, of course, frozen goods should be the last items in the cart, particularly if it is a big shopping trip with lots of waiting time at the deli or prepared foods case. For a customer who lives five minutes from your store, this might not be so big a deal.
But for anyone who has to travel somedistance to reach home, or is planning a series of stops en route, every extra minute perishable food sits in the shopping cart can be crucial. If food safety starts in the cart, the next crucial phase is the ride home. Again, if someone lives next door or down the street, it’s a moot point. Most don’t, however, and the more instructions you offer the better, particularly during the warmer months of the year. Use signage to suggest that shoppers don’t put their groceries in the trunk, typically the hottest place in the car. Put groceries inside the car where it is likely airconditioned.
Alternatively, encourage regular shoppers to keep a cooler in their trunk, preferably pre-filled with ice. Be sure to have ice or ice packs available in the summer, and offer it to anyone traveling any distance. Keep a supply of frozen ice packs in the most perishable areas of the store, such as those offering fresh fish or poultry. If someone doesn’t have a cooler in their car, pack their frozen purchases strategically around the non-frozen perishable items. Poultry will be cold enough not to immediately melt the frozen goods, and the frozen goods will help keep the chicken cold.
Four Steps to Safe Food at Home
If you can manage to help your customers get their food home safely, the next step is to teach them how to handle it properly in order to avoid contaminating it during preparation. Fortunately, the same procedures that should be in place at your store apply very nicely in the home kitchen as well. Clean – Separate – Cook – Chill is the succinct message that the Partnership for Food Safety (www.fightbac.org) came up with as a teaching tool. Once again, it addresses the fact that food becomes contaminated in one of three ways: time/temperature abuse, cross-contamination and poor hygiene. The details of this plan make great fodder for your newsletters and handouts.
At the risk of sounding redundant, here are some tips for your customers that you could actually post in the store:
• Clean. Wash your hands before and after handling food, and make sure your cutting and food preparation areas are sanitised. Also, don’t put food back on surfaces – cutting boards, platters, etc. – on which you previously had raw meat or other potentially unsafe, raw foods. This is a common mistake made during outdoor grilling, putting the cooked meat back on the platter used to carry it outside to the grill.
• Separate. Another common mistake made during outdoor cooking or in transporting food to or from an event is to allow raw foods to contaminate cooked foods. When traveling to a cookout, keep raw meats sealed and stored safely away from already prepared foods and foods that will be eaten raw such as salads, sliced tomatoes, fruit, and so on. Likewise, avoid cutting raw poultry, fish and seafood next to the salad area. Have special cutting boards designated for poultry, fish and meat, and others for vegetables. Also, don’t store raw meats above vegetables and other raw foods in the fridge. That’s why the meat drawer in the refrigerator is on the bottom.
• Cook. Be sure to cook foods to their proper internal temperatures. Always use an oven thermometer and instant-read meat thermometers to be sure temperatures are correct. This doesn’t mean you have to get crazy about it and cook your steak to shoe leather; just be aware of safe temperatures and adhere to them. This is especially true of poultry.
• Chill. Get perishable foods into the refrigerator as quickly as possible when you get home. Even if you are planning to cook them right away, don’t leave poultry or fish at room temperature while you are changing clothes, tending to the children, or doing other chores around the house. Never defrost food at room temperature, always do it in the refrigerator.
Likewise for marinating meats. Don’t add marinating juices to already cooked meats. Also, don’t overstuff your refrigerator, and be aware that foods stored on thedoor panels will be warmer than those inside, so plan accordingly. It’s a good idea to keep a refrigerator thermometer in the fridge at all times, even if it is new. Ultimately, there is only so much you can do about how customers handle their food once they leave the store. But the more you can teach them, remind them, demonstrate to them, provide the proper methods of transporting food home and otherwise influence them, the better off you’ll both be.
Who You Gonna Call?
Despite your best efforts, someone, someday is going to get sick from eating, or allegedly eating, something from your store. Assume that it will happen, and if it never does, then you can retire happy; but like the saying goes, it’s better to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best. To that end, in addition to all the precautionary steps we’ve discussed, it’s important to have a plan in place for dealing with a crisis. The best time to plan for a crisis, of course, is in a non-crisis environment. In a crisis, you are apt to make snap decisions, often influenced by someone’s screaming relative or, worse, their lawyer. Crisis management is important even when you are convinced the customer did not get the offending food from your store. The fact is, you can almost never be certain, and it’s better to err on the side of food safety. Besides, try telling someone who is in the throes of food poisoning that it wasn’t your food that made them sick and see how far it gets you.
You will be wise to establish a crisis management team in your store, made up of the store manager, department managers, buyers, cashiers, etc. Make sure you have a broad array of employees trained to handle the crisis to make it more certain that one of them will be on duty if a crisis occurs (it’s difficult to schedule a crisis). Make sure they are people who are responsible enough that you can rely on them to make the right decisions when you are not around. Training should include knowing how to assess the situation calmly, make contact with the owner or general manager, isolate the food that may have caused the crisis, and if necessary, handle the media. They should be trained in how to talk to the customer, especially one that is upset. If it is a situation that could easily impact the whole community, they will also need to know how who to call.
If we’ve learned nothing else from politicians over the years, it is that full disclosure at the time of the incident is the best policy. This doesn’t mean you have to necessarily alert the media if someone gets food poisoning, but in certain situations, it may be necessary. Remember that if you don’t address the media, they will find someone who will, and it may not be the person you would want representing your company, and the situation could go from bad to worse.
Immediately upon learning about a food safety incident, rather than assigning blame (people will generally be more forthcoming if they are not threatened with retribution or termination), conduct an investigation and isolate the offending food if it is still around. If you talk to anyone outside the store – media, family, lawyers – be honest about what happened. Issue progress reports as you discover new information. Don’t, however, throw your employees to the wolves, even if you know for certain who was responsible. Above all, be proactive, especially if this is a situation known by the community at large. After the crisis subsides, assess what happened and give a full account, what you have learned from it, and what steps you are taking to avoid such an incident in the future, even if you believe your systems are sound. After all, if the incident happened, there was a break in the system, so don’t be arrogant about it. Follow up with your staff afterward. Review what happened and discuss what, if anything, could have been done differently. Food safety is everyone’s business because a serious food crisis affects the success of the store and everyone’s job security. Hold regular food safety sessions with your staff, especially for new employees. Stress the main points of Clean – Separate – Cook – Chill, and explain why each step is important. It’s not enough to simply tell employees to wash their hands.
Encourage everyone to be vigilant about possible food safety situations, such as leaky boxes or foods that look like they are past their prime. Stress the importance of maintaining a proper paper trail for all ingredients and cooked dishes. If everyone works together, everyone will benefit. The customers will remain healthy and, well, customers; the staff will have a nice place to come to work and earn a living; and the reputation you worked so hard to establish will remain untarnished.