March 8, 2019

The Challenges of Food Safety in Grocery Stores

Written by Garret Weigel | Connected Facility, Food Safety, HACCP

Grocery stores provide a wide variety of goods, ranging from standard food products such as produce and dairy, and extending as far as pet products or sporting goods. This presents a unique problem to grocers: how do you get a handle on food safety when there are so many departments to manage? Additionally, consumers are becoming more health conscience and are demanding fresher, healthier foods, which requires more advanced, comprehensive food safety management systems (FSMS). In this post, we’ll talk about the challenges of food safety in grocery stores, and how changing consumer expectations are impacting current standards.

 

Changing Consumer Expectations

Consumer expectations for products in grocery stores and supermarkets are rapidly changing. Packaged foods had previously dominated pantries across America, primarily due to their convenience and price. But as consumers have become more aware and willing to adopt healthier lifestyle choices, grocery stores must respond in kind and stock products that are considered fresh. Fresh foods, or foods with fewer processed ingredients, while indeed healthier in most cases, are more challenging to monitor due to their shorter shelf-lives and sensitive temperature tolerances. As grocery stores stock healthier foods, it will be paramount to adopt digital food safety more widely. This problem is only amplified further, due to the variety of departments requiring unique temperature monitoring.

 

Monitoring Supermarket Departments

Grocery stores, as we all know, have different departments serving a variety of food. Each department has its own set of unique challenges when it comes to maintaining quality, but more importantly, maintaining food safety. Foodborne illness hospitalizes hundreds of thousands of people each year, but this can be reduced through more robust food safety practices, from produce to frozen foods. The FDA recommends that perishable foods sitting at room temperature should be discarded after 2 hours, giving little breathing room for grocers to discard spoiled product before it reaches the hands of consumers.

 

Produce

Fruit and vegetables require specific temperature ranges and humidity levels to guarantee freshness and prevent bacterial growth. Despite the fact that the produce is no longer connected to the plant they grew from, they are still living and breathing long after they are harvested. Cold-season produce should be kept at temperatures close to freezing (32 to 35 °F), while warm-season produce should be kept at, you guessed it, warmer temperatures (50 to 59 °F). You’ll notice that the produce department is commonly wet, and will likely have some sort of irrigation system to maintain humidity levels. Both temperature and humidity are key to preventing spoilage in the produce department.

 

produce sectionProduce department at the grocery store, requiring temperature and humidity control.

 

Dairy

If you thought produce needed specific temperature ranges, think again. Dairy products have far stricter requirements for maintaining quality and preventing spoilage. Without a real-time monitoring and alerting system, it would be challenging to respond to a refrigeration failure before consumers purchased the spoiled product.

 

Watch our webinar to learn about a newly released study on foodborne illness  conducted by the FDA, and how food safety management systems are key to keeping  customers safe.

 

In addition to food safety concerns, dairy can quickly turn sour without proper temperature controls, and can develop a foul stench if kept with pungent foods. The fat in dairy products is responsible for the creamy goodness that we’ve come to love, but also absorbs odors from other foods. As such, dairy must be kept separately from other perishables, requiring additional monitoring sensors to be placed in the separated refrigerators. While maintaining food safety is a priority, food quality can negatively impact the customer experience and lead to lost business.

 

dairy aisleOne example of dairy products requiring separate refrigeration.

 

Meat and Seafood

Meat and seafood are arguably the most important foods to keep from spoiling. They cause a significant amount of foodborne illness cases around the world every year, and are a staple to most diets. Like dairy, meats require strict adherence to the recommended temperature of 40 °F or below. By implementing a digital food safety solution, grocers can continuously monitor refrigerators and display cases for excursions, and receive proactive alerts to resolve the situation. Similar to milk, spoiled meat quickly becomes rancid, again highlighting the importance of a real-time alerting system.

 

meat deliMeats can be picked up from the butcher located in a grocery store, but there are commonly multiple meat and seafood sections.

 

Frozen Foods

Lastly, but certainly not least, is monitoring the frozen department for temperature excursions. Thankfully, frozen foods require straightforward temperature ranges: at or below 0° F. While simple enough, the frozen section typically includes a mix of foods from each of the previously mentioned departments, enabling a host of potential foodborne illnesses. From produce to dairy to meats, frozen food has penetrated nearly every available market for foods, and provided convenience akin to packaged, dry goods. Their universality has made them a staple in many diets, which is why it’s vital to maintain safety in the frozen department.

 

frozen foods

A small selection of the many options available in the frozen department.

 

Employee Training

As we’ve outlined before, one of the most critical components of an effective food safety management system (FSMS) is to focus on the people aspect. Training is vital to ensuring that foodborne illness is kept at bay. Food safety training can be broken down into 2 simple, but still extraordinarily important categories: maintaining hygiene and ensuring food safety tasks are being completed. Hygiene, while simple enough, is by far the single most important method of keeping customers safe. The FDA has recently cited handwashing as one of the two food safety behaviors needing the most improvement (the cold holding of foods, as outlined above, is the top concern). Employee training, whether its focused on handwashing or task completion, can be the difference between safe customers and a deadly outbreak. A digital task management can help with employee training by identifying task completion rate, thereby providing insight into food safety behaviors. Effective food safety is more than simply monitoring perishable foods. Employees are the front lines of food safety and must be taught how to prevent foodborne illness.

 

Grocers are tasked with many food safety related tasks, and must focus their efforts on maintaining safety and quality for their customers. Digital food safety has enabled proactive management of temperature excursions, leading to improved customer experiences.

 

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