GHQ Cover Story: Collaborating for Food Safety
By Jessie Male, Assistant Editor, Grocery Headquarters magazine
Technological advances, educational programs, media attention and consumer outreach have created a consciousness about food safety that protects both the food and the buyer.
The consensus is that the battle is ongoing and letting one’s guard down can have serious repercussions. Fortunately, there’s much evidence that the food industry as a whole is taking its responsibilities seriously.
Busch’s, the family-owned supermarket operator based in Ann Arbor, Mich., began its affiliation with NSF International, an independent not-for-profit organization that among other things provides food safety certification, to add to its credibility with shoppers and demonstrate that food safety was a top priority. The collaboration goes beyond third-party auditing. Over the course of the year, food safety information has been added to register tapes, weekly tips from NSF experts have become part of the sale circular and live demonstrations are provided for customers and their families. Though Busch’s certification is heavily advertised, spokeswoman Peggy Conlin says, “It is a trust issue. We think of it more as a responsibility than a marketing opportunity.”
This is no longer an unusual decision. Stores and manufacturers all over the country are hiring third-party auditors to assess the cleanliness of their establishments. According to Patrick Pimental, general manager of Ann Arbor-based NSF’s food safety programs, approximately 40 banners have been certified in the past year. “This is not something they just sign up for. This is something that they have to earn,” he says.
However, Jeff Nelken, a food safety coach and HACCP expert based in Woodland Hills, Calif., has clear evidence that auditors are not a surefire solution. Nelken consulted with the television news program Dateline: NBC on a year-long investigation, broadcast in January, that uncovered a multitude of sanitary violations at supermarkets carrying the banners of the nation’s 10 largest grocery chains. “There were quite a few incidences of temperature and testing problems, and many of the major chains that were mentioned had third-party auditors or equivalents. They let the companies down,” he says. “The auditors have become a crutch. Ultimately, you have to depend on your local manager and the commitment of the team on site.”
Nelken says the ability of companies to self-regulate carries with it a tremendous responsibility for training workers to uphold food safety standards. “The question is, can people police themselves? Does the company have the controls in place so the staff really becomes the inspectors and watches the operations on a daily basis?” Nelken says.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, nearly one in four cases of foodborne illness could be prevented by proper personal hygiene. “Workers need to be educated about not coming to work when they are,” explains NSF technical manager Mary Weaver. Basic hand-washing techniques and proper use of gloves are simple, but significant, skills.
FMI developed Super Safe Mark to train retail associates. The program is available in classes that last for one or two days, online and on a CD-ROM. The Conference of Food Protection recognizes the accredited certification exam. The Food Products Association offers manuals and is creating an online HACCP training course. “There are always people who are entering the food industry who need to be trained; it is ongoing,” says Jenny Scott, FPA vice president of food safety programs.
Moderator’s Question: What role should third-party auditors and trainers play in a retailer’s food safety program? Do you see a danger in relying too
heavily on outside parties, or is it best to “leave it up to the pros”? Is third-party credibility needed to assure consumer trust? –
Rick Moss – Moderator