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.