The financial impact of foodborne pathogens like Listeria monocytogenes and Norovirus can be tremendous for retailers. Lawsuits, loss of product, expenses associated with deep cleaning and retraining efforts, and plunging stock prices can all result from outbreaks. Less easy to quantify is the reputational damage that can result in lost customer confidence.
To minimize the risk of foodborne illnesses, retailers should understand unsafe practices, have a plan in place to deal with issues. and develop effective procedures for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting environments.
Practices and Behaviors Affecting Risk Level
Certain practices in retail settings can increase risks for food safety issues, including:
- Hands-on preparation. Increasingly, many retailers are selling freshly prepared take-home meal kits and packaged foods like deli wraps and sandwiches. While more convenient, these foods are at increased risk for product contamination with foodborne pathogens, given the extensive handling required during preparation.
- Equipment-based food preparation. If not cleaned and sanitized regularly, store-operated food-contact equipment, such as slicers and blenders, can become contaminated with L. monocytogenes. Equipment should be broken down every four hours for a thorough cleaning, followed by sanitizing with an approved chemical for food contact use.
- Poor hand-washing compliance. Ensuring hand-washing compliance among employees reduces risk for foodborne illnesses. Hand sanitizers are convenient, but shouldn’t be considered a substitute for hand washing using soap and warm water. Retailers should encourage workers to wash their hands regularly, especially during winter, when Norovirus illnesses peak.
Sound Strategies to Manage Food Safety
Retailers should consider the following best practices to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses:
- Secure buy-in from management. A strong food safety culture begins with buy-in from upper management. This creates a trickle-down effect to employees and partners such as suppliers and maintenance teams.
- Food safety performance metrics for managers. When management cares about food safety, their employees will, too. One way to achieve this is to incorporate a food safety performance metric into career development plans for managers. For example, a portion of a manager’s bonus may be determined based on the store’s health inspection score, incentivizing the manager to drive food safety compliance at the store level.
- Train the trainers. Organizations must train the right people – those with leadership authority. When managers overseeing front-line employees understand food safety, they can better train their staffers and provide constructive feedback.
- Take steps to contain illness. Retailers should enforce policies to keep ill employees from working. Although retailers can’t keep customers from shopping while sick, they can use a Norovirus-approved disinfectant in restrooms on a daily basis and on high-touch surfaces like door handles and shopping carts.
- Develop a written Norovirus plan. In the event that vomit or diarrhea related to Norovirus occurs in a store, retailers must have a plan in place to guide them in the cleanup and disposal process (required in the 2017 edition of FDA Food Code).
- Demand high standards from suppliers. Retailers should source food and ingredients from suppliers with best-in-class food safety practices. While using a third-party auditing service to verify supplier food safety practices is helpful, periodic visits by the retailer to supplier production sites are essential for developing a strong food safety business relationship.
- Conduct periodic deep cleanings. Stores should deep-clean equipment and storage areas like deli cases several times per year. In the event of an outbreak or a positive swab sample from a high-risk area, a deep clean should be immediately performed. For deep cleans to be effective, retailers need support from everyone, especially their maintenance teams, as they will be responsible for disassembling equipment to ensure that all nooks and crannies are cleaned and sanitized.
Product Pairings for Tough Pathogens
In addition to following best practices, retailers should work with their chemical vendors to identify easy-to-use solutions for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting, as well as develop standard sanitation operating procedures.
Floors can harbor pathogenic bacteria if not frequently cleaned. Traditionally, cleaning floors has been a multistep process. However, innovative products and chemistries are now available that minimize cleaning times. Retailers should look for time-saving floor-cleaning chemistries that achieve these labor savings and allow staff to focus on other key food safety tasks.
For disinfectants, quick-acting products are ideal. Targeted routine disinfection should occur more frequently in winter, particularly in areas at high risk for Norovirus contamination like restrooms and high-touch surfaces.
Better Safe Than Sorry
Today, consumers can easily self-report instances of foodborne illness via sites such as IWasPoisoned.com, social media platforms and review sites like Yelp. By implementing a sound training program to drive employee compliance and by stocking effective products, retailers can reduce the risk of seeing their names associated with negative food safety news.