With great power comes great responsibility. So said "Uncle Ben" Parkerto his web-slinging nephew Peter in the 2002 summer smash Spider-Man. Asimilar maxim applies to convenience retailers in the food business: With thepotential for big profits in the prepared foods category comes great responsibility…and no small amount of risk.
Each year, about 76 million foodborne illness cases occur in the U.S. and mostare traced back to eating establishments outside of the home, according to theCenters for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As a result of contamination,one in four Americans get sick (with symptoms that may range from mild, temporarydiscomfort to extreme distress requiring hospitalization) and 5,000 die eachyear, according to the CDC.
The National Restaurant Association estimates that the average cost of a foodborne illness to an eating establishment is around $75,000, but in terms of loss of business, lawsuits, increased insurance premiums, lowered employee morale and damage to brand integrity, the stakes are probably even higher. CDC data shows that the lack of proper temperature control during food handling—during transporting, receiving, storage, preparation or serving—is the most common cause of foodborne illness.
But in its most recent Report on the Occurrence of Foodborne Illness Risk Factorsin Selected Institutional Foodservice, Restaurant and Retail Store FacilityTypes, the Food and Drug Administration found infractions in food temperaturesand holding times in almost 42% of America’s quick-service restaurants.
Carefully designed food-safety infrastructures place convenience retailers Wawa, Sheetz and Quick Chek—which have made strides over the years to become not just retailers but restaurateurs—comfortably within that other 58%.
Vigilant and resolute
At Wawa, a suburban Philadelphiabased chain withmore than 500 stores in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, food safetybegins at the product development level. Prior to the introduction of any newfood product, Wawa Director of Quality Assurance and Food Safety Jane Griffithworks with the marketing department to "build in" such safeguards as determiningideal holding temperatures and including a readable use-by date directly onthe packaging (to avoid recoding and provide lots of information for easiertraceability, she says).
All products arrive at Wawa stores pre-cooked to eliminate potential problems—including crosscontamination and improper cooking temperatures and times—that can occur when working with raw ingredients. Even vegetables are cut and washed "upstream" at processing plants operated by strictly monitored "vendor partners," says Griffith. Wawa’s vendors are audited annually.
"Any time there is a hand-off in the supply chain there’s a potential for problems," she cautions. "The only way to protect consumer trust and brand integrity is by being constantly vigilant."
The addition of a second distribution center in May 2004 enabled Wawa to initiatea just-in-time delivery system, eliminating the need for its stores to warehousefood products. Instead of twice-a-week deliveries, trucks now deliver freshfood items to stores four to six times per week, allowing employees to focuson proper product rotation in its cases. The second distribution center, locatedin New Jersey, has its own on-site quality assurance and safety specialist.
At the store level, food safety at Wawa is a team effort with every employeefrom the part-time level on up receiving comprehensive classroom and on-the-jobtraining. All foodservice managers also receive training and certification throughthe National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe program.
"In foodservice operations where only the manager is trained in safety and quality assurance, there is a gap in expertise and knowledge when that individual is not on site," Griffith says. "By broadening the base of that knowledge, we are assured that everyone is on the same page 24/7."
Altoona, PA-based Sheetz, which operates more than 300stores in five states, also has a quality assurance and safety team, headedby a director at the corporate level and a manager stationed at the company’sdistribution center. The manager is responsible for certifying all food suppliersand reviewing all of their recipes and procedures, according to the department’sdirector, Mike Magner.
A separate quality assurance and safety manager oversees eight specialistsin the field, most of whom are former store managers already versed in Sheetzpolicies and procedures, Magner says. Strategically located to cover the entireSheetz market area, the field specialists audit each of the stores a minimumof two times per quarter. The specialists also re-visit units as necessary towork with instore employees to address and correct any problems.
Every employee at Sheetz must undergo the company’s proprietary foodservice safety training program. Managers, assistant managers and shift supervisors must also achieve ServSafe certification.
Whitehouse Station, NJ-based Quick Chek Food Stores, meanwhile, regularly pulls food product samples for temperature checks when suppliers and distributors make deliveries to its warehouse in northern New Jersey to ensure that items meet the company’s strict specifications, according to Jennifer Vespole, foodservice director for the 108-store chain. Inside the stores, temperatures in coolers and sandwich station cases are constantly monitored by a computer-based system that feeds data directly to the corporate office.
At the stores’ self-service soup bars, temperatures are checked every hour to ensure that they are within the ideal 150 to 160 degree range. ("Soup that’s too hot can be a safety hazard if it’s spilled," Vespole says.)
In addition to the ServSafe program, Quick Chek has its own internal foodservice safety training program that is currently being upgraded from a computer software-based system to an Internet-based platform.
"The Web-based platform will allow us to enter any instructions for new products or any changes at corporate headquarters and instantly disseminate that information chain-wide," Vespole says.
Mystery shoppers who regularly visit each Quick Chek store provide yet anothersafeguard. In addition to grading the stores on the usual criteria of cleanlinessand customer service, the chain’s mystery shoppers actually perform temperaturechecks on foodservice items.
Learn it, live it
In the early 1990s, Wawa introduced an internal auditingprogram dubbed "Clean, Fresh and Friendly." This program encompassed every aspectof store operations from sanitation and workplace safety to product presentationand customer service. About eight years ago, the company decided to conducta separate audit for foodservice. (Appropriately enough, the company named itthe Foodservice and Sanitation Audit, or FSSA for short.)
Wawa stores, which are audited by Palm Pilot-wielding professionals three timesa year, are required to earn a score of 88% or better. ("Many do way above thatand we’re constantly moving the needle upwards," says Griffith.) Scoring isimmediate so that any store earning less than the requisite 88% can expect tobe contacted within 24 hours by one of the company’s field specialists. Within48 hours of the initial report, a specialist will arrive at a "non-qualifying"store to work with the in-store team to identify and strengthen problem areas.
No quick fix, the process can take as long as six months, with the specialists starting out by visiting
such a store a couple of times a week. Only after the store earns two consecutive FSSA scores of 88% or better is the specialist’s mission considered accomplished.
At Sheetz, management’s concern about food safety is more than just business. It’s personal, says Magner. Each month’s employee newsletter includes at least one article on the subject, whether it focuses on safe barbecuing in summer or cooking the Thanksgiving turkey or the proper temperature to avoid bacteria growth.
"We want our employees to use their food safety knowledge to protect theirfamilies as well as the customers," he explains. "We want to make it an integralpart of their everyday lives."
Food safety in the real world
Foodservice providers can reduce their risk of foodborne-illnessoutbreaks by 70% by following the Food and Drug Administration’s guidelinesfor proper holding temperatures and cooking times, preventing contaminationof equipment, strictly enforcing hand-washing policies and closely monitoringfood supply sources, according to National Restaurant Association VicePresident of Health and Safety Regulatory Affairs Dr. Donna Garren, Ph.D.
But, in the real world, there are intangibles, starting with the factthat employees don’t always follow the rules. In a new study by the EnvironmentalHealth Specialists Network (EHS-Net), a network of environmental healthspecialists and epidemiologists at federal and state health agencies,a quarter of foodservice workers reported that they did not always washtheir hands, and a third said they did not always change their glovesbetween handling raw meat or poultry and ready-to-eat food, putting consumersat risk.
When cooking raw foods, more than half failed to follow FDA guidelinesto use thermometers to check that internal temperatures are high enoughto kill pathogens, the study continued. A small percentage (5%) of therespondents said that they continued to work while sick with vomitingand diarrhea, a practice that has the potential to expose large numbersof customers to illness.
EHS-Net includes researchers from the FDA, Centers for Disease Controland Prevention (CDC), National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH),the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and eight state health departments.
Despite their most comprehensive programs and diligent practices, eventhe best food operators cannot completely mitigate their risk of foodborneillness. To ensure that they are prepared to take immediate action shouldany problem occur, all foodservice operators should have emergency systemsin place.
In addition to food vendor certification responsibilities, the qualityassurance and food safety manager at Sheetz Inc.’s distribution centeris on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to handle and respond toany food safety issues that might arise as a result of a customer call.This "roundthe-clock" emergency system is designed to give the entirechain a "heads-up" should a problem occur, according to Mike Magner, qualityassurance and food safety director for Sheetz.
Follow-up is immediate and, if necessary, so is action by Sheetz’s speciallydesignated "recall team." Magner points out that products may be removedfrom store shelves if they are discovered to fail to meet company qualitystandards, even if there is no health risk involved.
Sheetz has a three-step recall alert procedure that includes a telephonemessage via automated dialing system, the printing out of instructionsat each store and an e-mail alert. Each store must respond or a corporate-levelspecialists will contact the store again.
Like Sheetz, Wawa also has a comprehensive system in place for recallingproducts that may not meet its quality standards. Wawa’s call center usesfive different methods of communication— intranet, automatic dialingsystem plus a text message, an e-mail and a cell phone voicemail messageto all regional and area managers—to get the word of a recall outto the stores. To ensure compliance, Wawa requires each store to takeinventory and report its findings, even if it does not have any of theproduct in question in stock.