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03/21/2022

Reassessing Sanitation Strategies

The pandemic made supermarket operators more aware of sanitation, and they’re now looking at ways to improve practices
Mike Duff
Contributing Editor, Progressive Grocer
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Reassessing Sanitation Strategies
Now is a good time for supermarket operators to review their entire scope of sanitation practices.

Supermarket sanitation is a topic with more relevance today in a marketplace reconditioned by the COVID-19 pandemic to take notice of whatever might be unhealthy in a retail environment.

The degree to which the idea of a healthy supermarket environment could change almost overnight is exemplified by Lidl, which not only rethought how it would address usual and some unusual health-related questions — going so far as to put some bulk produce into paper bags for consumers worried about being close to other shoppers and picking up items handled by others — but also married technology to shopper concerns. Clean floors remain important, but Lidl has reconsidered the whole store atmosphere.

“The health, safety and cleanliness of our stores is always a priority for Lidl, for our team and customers,” affirms William Harwood, spokesman for Arlington, Va.-based Lidl US. “Specific to the pandemic, the hospital-grade MERV-13 air filtration is the strongest example. We are the only national retailer to have implemented that to combat airborne transmission after that became a recommendation of the CDC.”

Wellness, in a broadening sense, already was a growing consumer consideration before the pandemic, and more folks looked to avoid disease states by improving their approaches to diet and exercise and even social engagement. The long, dreary pandemic made wellness an even deeper and broader concern as more people took the idea seriously.

Ashley Eisenbeiser, senior director, food and product safety programs at Arlingon, Va.-based FMI – The Food Industry Association, points out: “Food retailers have made a significant investment and have spent more than $1 billion on materials to keep their workers and customers safe. Many food retailers have adopted a more frequent cleaning schedule, as cleaning and sanitation is a best-practice measure for prevention of COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses.”

Looking Beyond the Pandemic

After the scramble to respond to the pandemic, now is probably a good time for supermarket operators to review their entire scope of sanitation practices, if they haven’t done so already.

“Regardless of the pandemic, cleaning and sanitation have always played vital roles in the prevention of contamination and remain foundations for establishing an effective food safety management system,” Eisenbeiser says. “Developing and implementing a well-documented and executable cleaning and sanitation program is the first step to achieving a safe food retail environment and building a strong food safety culture.”

She adds that a solid systematic program is the foundation for satisfying consumers who, at least in some cases, are thinking more about their health when they’re shopping and otherwise out in public.

“Food retailers should have a master sanitation approach in place to manage and organize a cleaning and sanitation program across the store, including both perimeter and center aisle areas,” Eisenbeiser notes. “This approach involves developing a master sanitation schedule, which identifies the ‘who, what, where and when’ for cleaning equipment, utensils, surfaces and environmental areas. Doing so provides clarity and accountability for management and retail employees alike for proper execution of the cleaning and sanitation tasks and programs, while also demonstrating to consumers that they take their responsibility to provide a safe shopping environment seriously.” 

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Reassessing Sanitation Strategies
Standards, whether internal or regulatory, are likely to become more stringent in the future as technology enhances sanitation practices.

Heightened Awareness

According to Darren Lewis, key account director at Hamilton, Ohio-based Kaivac, supermarket operators today may be even more conscious of their store cleanliness than consumers. He’s received more inquiries about devices that can clean under cases well beyond where consumers are likely to see, not just for cleaning that’s required under sanitary plans, but also to ensure that their stores are paragons of cleanliness. Although such concerns may seem exaggerated, Lewis observes that cleanliness is now a competitive issue: Convenience stores and chain restaurants that do a particularly good job in this area use that fact in their marketing.

Lewis says that although Kaivac sells devices that automate the cleaning process, and is well known for its contactless cleaning products, the technology can only go as far as the commitment a business has made. The past two years have made supermarket operators more aware of sanitation, and they’re looking at ways to improve practices. Supermarket operators are very much aware that customers notice when things aren’t right.

“We’re having heightened conversations today,” he notes. “We’re hearing, ‘We have to do more now.’ They want to talk about everything. They want to talk to you about the restrooms. They want to do things with the refrigerator cases. They are open to the scale of cleaning needed and tasked to handle it, given a budget and are asking, ‘What do I do now, and six months down the road?’ Before, that wouldn’t have been so high on the priority list.”

Once, supermarket, convenience store operators and chain restaurants tried to ensure that their restrooms were as clean as the rest of their facilities. Lewis suggests that to deal with today’s sanitation environment, an opposite tack should be taken. Given that the impression a restroom makes has always had an impact on what consumers think of any business, consideration of sanitation starts there. A restroom that projects cleanliness not only reassures customers, but is also a place where supermarket operators can focus attention and use as an example of how they want the entire store cleaned and sanitized. Other parts of the operation get busy, and sanitation may not always receive the priority it deserves. Supermarket operators should emphasize whatever boosts consideration of cleanliness, in the cause of making sanitation not only a priority, but also a statement about the store.

This mindset can also help supermarket operators prepare for the future. Standards, whether internal or regulatory, are likely to become more stringent in the future as technology enhances sanitation practices.

The Future of Clean

Although COVID-19 increased awareness of the importance of sanitation, the basic need to keep consumers safe remains the same, according to Dr. Valentina Trinetta, associate professor at the Food Science Institute, Animal Science and Industry Department at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kan., but how that’s accomplished won’t stay the same.

“In cleaning and sanitation, there is a huge interest towards artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML),” Trinetta says. “We are looking more towards automatic systems that cut the time of cleaning, new hygiene design that makes equipment and tools easier to clean, systems that measure food residue and microbial debris in pieces of equipment, and then optimize the cleaning process. A lot of food scientists are working with computer science experts and engineers to try achieving these objectives.”

So, in the future, she says, supermarket operators may find themselves training employees, from new hires up through retail executives, on proper hygiene protocols and sanitation procedures, using augmented reality or virtual reality to improve overall food safety knowledge. They will use predictive modeling in food preparation areas by mapping out high-risk production environments, informing managers to take corrective action and preventing re-contamination, as well as working with public-health agencies, academic institutions and technology firms to leverage AI and ML data that assists in the identification of contamination sources during foodborne disease outbreak investigations.

It’s a brave new world. 

    Infection Still a Concern for Shoppers

    COVID-19 has undermined consumers’ sense of normalcy and forced them to make determinations about how they will ensure their own well-being. In an Ipsos study published in early February, as the Omicron variant was in sharp decline in the United States, only 21% of people polled felt that social settings should open up with no restrictions, while 29% wanted to move in that direction with some precautions, 23% wanted to mostly keep requirements in place, and 21% actually wanted to increase mask mandates and vaccine requirements.

    Even in a March 1 Ipsos report, 51% of people supported their state or local government requiring masks in public places, which includes supermarkets; this percentage was down significantly but not dramatically from the 63% reported for the previous six months. The numbers suggest that consumers are making decisions about their health in public places and erring on the side of caution.

    Even as the virus becomes less of an issue, the tacit agreement between shoppers and supermarket operators or anyone selling food remains at a somewhat elevated level of consciousness.

    “Grocery shoppers deserve and expect a safe shopping experience,” says Ashley Eisenbeiser, senior director, food and product safety programs at Arlington, Va.-based FMI — The Food Industry Association. “Recent consumer research conducted by FMI and published in the ‘FMI U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2021’ report shows 72% of customers expect a store to be clean and neat. Additionally, 91% of shoppers trust their grocery store to ensure that the food they purchase is safe.”

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