focus on food safety

Just two years after the devastating tomato outbreak at Sheetz, other retailers have benefited from the hard lesson.

Any convenience retailer heavily invested in foodservice has to admit their heart dropped when wordspread about the tomato epidemic at Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc. A salmonella-tainted shipment of tomatoesled to 400 people getting sick in July 2004, and two yearslater the company has settled all but a few customer lawsuits.

Citing confidentiality agreements, Sheetz will not say howmuch was paid to settle hundreds of customer claims. Whileinsurance paid most of them, Sheetz covered the $500,000deductible by paying some customers.

But the epidemic can not be measured in cost alone.Though the fault fell on the supplier that delivered the shipment, Sheetz had the difficult responsibility of reconcilingwith customers and begin anew earning their trust.

“We stepped up to the plate and took care of our customers,” Michael Cortez, general counsel for Sheetz, recentlytold reporters at a settlement hearing. “Now we have to takecare of the harm that’s been done to us.”

While the food supply in the U.S.is one of the safest in the world, theCenters for Disease Control estimates that 76 million people get sick,more than 300,000 are hospitalized,and 5,000 Americans die each yearfrom foodborne illness. Preventingfoodborne illness and death remainsa major public health challenge.

Mechanicsville, Va.-based FasMart Convenience Stores took theSheetz outbreak to heart. The 170-store chain has some form of foodservice—from roller grill to its full-service deli with fresh chicken to aDeli Express packaged sandwichprogram—in 98% of its stores andrealized it could just as easily havesuccumb to the same fate.

“Sheetz does a great job and it’s scary to think that thiscould happen to them,” said Phill Oliver, the foodservice category manager for Fas Mart. “Trust is important in c-storesbecause we’ve only been in food the last 15 years. The customer trusts us to make sure our product is safe for their families. Once that trust is breached, it puts the whole industry ina different light. Once trust is broken, it’s hard to get it back.”

The Sheetz experience forced Fas Mart to examine itsfoodservice procedures, “to ensure we were doing the rightthing,” Oliver said. “There are so many variables with freshchicken that you have to make sure your managers knowwhat they’re doing and why. We went back and looked atour procedures to make sure there weren’t any holes in oursystem.”

Vendor Opportunity
Oliver feels the secret to a successful food program is acommitment from the top of the company down. Each foodservice operator must invest in the necessary resources— equipment, training, staffing and labor. After that, it comesdown to the partners chosen by a convenience retailer.

“You need to pick good suppliers, distributors and manufacturers,” Oliver said. “With our Deli Express sandwiches,the product already comes to us put together, so we need totrust that they are following the necessary procedures.”

But Oliver relies on more than asupplier’s word. He often will meetwith Fas Mart’s partners to verifythey are following safety procedures.In fact, Oliver said that before hechooses a food partner, he talks toother retailers to make sure he ispartnering with a reputable company.

And even after ensuring that allthe right systems and partnershipsare in place, Oliver conceded it allcomes down to proper training.

“There are new products andprocedures being introduced all thetime,” he said. “Turnover is also afactor. You need to go over procedures again and again. That’s theonly way to ensure it’s being done.”

Training Old and New Dogs
Cassandra Bailey is also a firm believer in the repetitiveaspect of training. She became a certified Serv-Safe trainer tenyears ago, and as director of foodservice and food safety forCalfee Co. of Dalton, she has based all foodservice trainingprocedures at the comapany’s Favorite Markets and Compac Food Stores on the program and hasServ-Safe certified all of the company’sregional management. The 129-storechain currently offers foodservice at 60of its locations. It has four proprietaryconcepts, but most notably serves up itsproprietary Fingers fried chicken program, which have locations that serveup as much as $13,000 a week in freshfried chicken and fresh ribs that aresmoked on site.

Like Oliver, Bailey reflected on theincident at Sheetz as a wake up call forher company. While not everyone is asinvolved in foodservice and food safetyissues as she is, after hearing the newsat Sheetz, everyone from the CEOdown knew they could gain fromknowing as much as possible.

“Sheetz was a prime example ofwhat could happen to the best retailers,” Bailey said. “It immediatelyfocused new executive and managerialattention to the food safety aspect ofour operation, and provided meaning,depth and value to our training programs.”

Because Bailey was such a foodservice innovator and had been creatingher own food safety training programsbased on the Serv-Safe model, the company hasn’t had to change its procedures due to the Sheetz situation. But itdid take the time to review them. “Youcan have the best laid plans, but without execution, they mean nothing,” shesaid.

Bailey offers the following tips forretailers offering or looking to offerfood at their stores that should helpkeep their operations and customerssafe:

  1. Keep it simple with standardized recipes and operating procedures. Development and implementation of procedures that are easily accessible and understood are essential for a food- service operation of any size to be safe. From the recipes to operational procedures, the instructions should cover every aspect of the food operation including shift duties, cleaning schedules and time and temperature controls.
  2. Get everyone involved with organizational commitment and management support. There must be a corporate foodservice and store level foodservice support separate from the retail c-store operations. Involvement from every level of management is crucial for food service to be executed safely.
  3. Constantly train with customized food safety programs. The primary objective is to address safe food handling and personal hygiene as well as specific product critical control points (CCP). Foodservice training needs to be a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP)-based system that provides structure for food safety implementation within the organization. The system provides procedures for safe food handling.
  4. Reward for a job well done with a bonus program for compliance and performance. Through sales review as well as production compliance audits, all managers need to be recognized and rewarded for food safety and performance compliance and accomplishments.
  5. Invest in your future by utilizing equipment that is easy to use, clean and maintain that provides programmable functions that control time and temperatures in order to provide operational routine structure for CCP compliance.

Tools for Food Safety
Todd Griffith, national sales manager for foodservice equipment providerAlto-Shaam (www.alto-shaam.com), saidone reason that retailers are susceptibleto food safety violations is that theyoften see it as an afterthought—something they need to do after a problemhas already taken place. The industryneeds to change its mentality to viewsafety as a preventative maintenancemeasure.

In an effort to protect foodserviceretailers, Alto-Shaam has partneredwith E-Control Systems ( rget="_new">www.econtrol-systems.com) to integrate a hardware andsoftware platform into Alto-Shaam’sequipment. The platform providesretailers with a means for data transferto track and monitor in real time thatfood is being prepared and held at theproper temperatures.

“The software goes beyond kitchenmanagement,” Griffith said. “The communication equipment within ourcombi ovens, quick chillers, cook andhold ovens and hold cabinets all offerreal-time data transfer, so depending onhow food is being processed, all stagesare monitored and recorded.”

The information is fed into a centralized system that is housed in a retailer’scorporate office. Should a problemoccur or the retailer need to verify it’sbeen compliant with procedures, it cantype in any store and check the data forthat store down to a specific moment inproduct preparation. It provides retailers with documentation at store levelfor the company’s protection.

The software platform can also integrate equipment from other manufacturers. So retailers can monitor anypiece of equipment—from fryers towalk-in coolers to ovens—even if they’remade by different manufacturers.Griffith admits that one reason thesesystems are not more widely used within the industry is cost, but Alto-Shaamis working to make it a more cost-effective solution.

The other end of the cost equation isthat it’s cheaper to upgrade equipmentthan to settle contamination suits.

“Safety of the consumer has to befirst and foremost,” Griffith said.“HACCP is still Star Wars to most ofthe industry—they know it’s coming butthey can’t quite wrap their mindsaround it. The question is, do they waituntil they have to become compliant, orare they progressive and make the initiative ahead of time. When you look atthe alternative, you can’t compare costwith loss of business.”

(Industry) Team Player

In accordance with recent legislation, Article 20-C of the New York Agriculture & Markets Law was amended to establish a food safety certification requirement for retail food stores that prepare food on the premises. For Tonawanda, N.Y.- based NOCO Express, who was poised to introduce its Nickel City Market Caf, this posed a concerned.

The company hired Andi Baker as its retail training manager with the intention of having her create training tools to ensure managers were properly trained in foodservice procedures as well as assist associates in their training. She came on board in October 2005, and needed to hit the ground running to keep the company on schedule for the June 2006 unveiling of its Nickel City Market Caf. Not only did Baker meet her goal, but NOCO Express has been named one of the first convenience store chains in New York to have its Food Safety Education Certification Program approved by the Department of Agriculture & Markets.

Baker designed the food safety training program and certification test, which was approved by the state to meet its new requirement. Topics such New York’s safety statutes and regulations, foodborne illness, temperature control, pest control, food microbiology, personal hygiene, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP), cleaning and sanitation and food security were covered during the eight-hour course.

“We wanted the training to be as applicable as possible to our stores and to offer it in a way that it was easy to digest,” said Baker. “We broke the sessions up over two and a half days that totaled the required eight hours of training and testing.”

Each of NOCO’s store managers participated and passed the certification program. They have to be recertified after two years.

“We’re able to give a well-rounded program of food safety, while also providing lessons associates can take into their everyday lives,” Baker said.

In addition, NOCO’s Food Safety Training course will be posted on the New York State Department of Agriculture’s Website (www.agmkt.state.ny.us) for other retail outlets to consider implementing with their associates, and NOCO’s contact information is also included on the site so the company can consult other operators looking for assistance.

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