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Food Safety Is Good for Business

Expert offers 3 steps for grocers to realign their food safety programs
Chris Boyles from Steritech
Cheese Display at Supermarket
Every food retailer should have a documented FSMS in place and ensure that it’s understood by managers and front-line workers who are tasked with high-risk work.

By all signs, the grocery business is looking up. In the first half of 2023, major supermarket chains reported steady performance, increased revenues and heightened e-commerce sales. However, many grocers are also facing challenges that can put food safety — and their reputations — at risk. To help minimize that risk, now is a great time to re-evaluate your food safety initiatives to be sure they align with your current operations. 

The Ripple Effect of a Labor Shortage on Food Safety

Finding and keeping store-level help remain issues for many locations. This prolonged labor shortage can affect food safety. As managers work to keep operations running smoothly, food safety training for new team members can be cut short or not take place at all. Even tenured staff members might be tempted to take shortcuts as they juggle a busier workload than usual. 

This can mean that tasks that are time-consuming or that don’t appear to have an immediate impact on food safety can get skipped. For example, keeping a temperature log requires training time and a commitment to logging temperatures throughout the day. When temperatures aren’t logged repeatedly, it can lead to critical food safety infractions or important equipment maintenance not being addressed. 

Increases in New Practices, But No Updated Policies

Another challenge that many stores are facing is the swift uptick in curbside pickup and delivery orders. As these channels have continued to increase post-pandemic, many stores have adopted procedures to accommodate these consumer behaviors. Yet some retailers haven’t implemented formalized food safety practices, leaving significant gaps that can put consumer health at risk. 

Third-party delivery presents other challenges. Once products are picked up, the store has little control over the time it takes to deliver, safe handling and potential contamination. When problems occur, however, buyers tend to point the finger at the organization they ordered from. In a survey of 3,000 North American adults conducted in the fall of 2022, when Steritech asked consumers who they felt was ultimately responsible if an online order didn’t meet their expectations (inaccurate, delivered at the wrong temperature, etc.), 55% blamed the store or outlet they ordered from, while only 28% blamed the third-party delivery service. 

3 Steps to Realign Your Food Safety Program

Given these challenges, retailers must take extra steps to ensure that food safety remains top of mind for every worker across their ecosystems. Now is an opportune time to re-evaluate your organization’s food safety policies and practices. To make that process more manageable, center your efforts on these three key areas:

1. Craft an organization-wide food safety commitment statement

Food safety begins at the top in any organization. To give employees across your enterprise a guidepost and a universal rallying point, implement a written food safety commitment statement. This statement can be part of your mission statement or stand alone, but it should be short and memorable. 

An example of a strong food safety statement might sound something like this: “We are committed to providing our customers with safe, high-quality products in clean, well-organized stores, staffed by highly trained, friendly associates who prioritize customer service and convenience.”

The statement should be put into practice, help guide leaders’ business decisions, be discussed regularly and be modeled by leaders at every level of the organization. It should be written and highly visible on a variety of channels so it remains top of mind for employees every day. 

Another great way to live out your statement is in customer-facing communications. For example, one major grocery retailer prints safe cooking temperatures on its plastic bags in the meat department. If your store offers meal kits, print food safety reminders on the recipe card. For prepared food areas, simple stickers that remind your customers of food safety practices, such as “Refrigerate after use,” can reinforce your brand’s commitment to shoppers’ safety.

2. Implement or review your food safety management system

A food safety management system (FSMS) is defined as a structured process implemented by a food establishment to ensure that its practices reduce the risk of foodborne illness and produce the safest foods possible. Every food retailer should have a documented FSMS in place and ensure that it’s understood by managers and front-line workers who are tasked with high-risk work. Doing so can have a dramatic impact on performance. 

Based on a study done on supermarket delis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, delis where the person in charge at the time of the inspection could discuss the organization’s well-developed food safety management systems had nearly half the number of cited issues. 

If your store doesn’t already have an FSMS in place, begin with identifying food safety risks by department or area. Include the following three elements:

  • Procedures that document critical limits or steps, as well as the proper processes to control the risk. 
  • Training for everyone who engages in that behavior, including clearly established guidelines of who conducts the training. 
  • Monitoring of the procedure to ensure the proper process is being followed. 

Examples of high-risk practices can be found in the FDA’s 2021 study on food retail delis. The agency focused on 10 key practices that included proper handwashing, protecting food from cross-contamination, properly cleaning and sanitizing food contact surfaces, cold and hot holding, and proper cooking temperatures.  

If your store has an FSMS in place, you’re already in a great position. However, consider testing your managers’ knowledge of the FSMS. If they don’t know it, implement training initiatives to ensure that they have a good working knowledge of it. 

3. Employ a continuous-improvement process

To ensure that food safety remains protected, retailers should commit to using a continuous-improvement process in their food safety plan. This involves holding the organization (and its people) accountable for food safety goals. 

The first step in a continuous-improvement process is identifying where improvements are needed and establishing key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure success. This should be a focused list of a few key areas where improvements will make a substantial difference to food safety and, ultimately, your customers and brand. Here are two examples of a well-constructed KPI.

New-hire training completion rate: Improve average number of days for employee food safety certification from 20 days to 15 days.

Citations on quarterly third-party inspections: Reduce average critical issues in bakery from 
1.9 to 1.5 within the next six months.

Mobilize your teams around your KPIs. Be sure that everyone in the organization knows them. Whether they play an active role in achieving the KPI, everyone has a part to play in supporting their teammates in reaching goals. 

Adopt a “Plan, Do, Check, Act” approach to ensure that your KPIs and other critical food safety processes aren’t just static targets, but that the organization is holding itself accountable and continually taking steps to make incremental improvements. 

While every organization is different, there are many ways to practically implement a continuous-improvement process for food safety. Consider these steps as part of your planning: 

  • Include food safety responsibilities or KPIs in job descriptions and discuss them in performance reviews. This ensures that individuals understand the importance of food safety and see it as part of their job responsibilities. 
  • Leverage an independent third-party organization to conduct regular food safety evaluations. Having an objective, outside review of your food safety practices can help provide a clear picture of where your organization needs to focus its efforts. 
  • Empower your teams through a formalized self-evaluation process. Having your teams conduct evaluations of their own performance can help them identify areas of concern and work to improve them before they become issues. However, conducting self-evaluations requires special skills. Those performing them should be trained in how to inspect, how to document what they’re seeing and how to investigate for root cause.  

Perception is Everything 

Consumer awareness of public-health and -safety issues is at an all-time high. While many food safety practices may go unobserved, there are just as many that can be visible to your customers. Produce that isn’t rotated regularly can attract fruit flies, malfunctioning coolers can develop condensation or frost, and employees who are sick while working are examples of issues that can make customers question your brand’s commitment to food safety and to their health.

On the other hand, customers who observe your employees culling produce, notice the sparkling-clean display cases or pick up a meal kit with clear food safety instructions will know that your store is committed to their health and satisfaction. That can give a boost to customer trust and loyalty and drive sales. Implementing documented, detailed food safety plans isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also good for your business. 

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