Putting Food Safety First
ATLANTA — Having a quality menu and reliable employees are important pieces of a good foodservice program, but so is having a food safety program and the knowledge of what to do if a safety incident occurs — because otherwise, when something goes wrong, other attributes won't protect a brand from the hit to its reputation, according to the participants of the "Food Safety Roundtables: Protecting Public Health and Your Brand," held Oct. 1 at the 2019 NACS Show.
Moderated by Food Safety Magazine Editorial Director Barbara VanRenterghem, the roundtable included: Jay Ellingson, senior director of food regulations at La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip Inc; Jeremy Zenlea, director of food safety at Westborough, Mass.-based Cumberland Farms; and Ryan Krebs, director of foodservice at York, Pa.-based Rutter's.
Food safety begins with the culture of an organization, said Ellingson. At Kwik Trip, the company culture "has to be second nature" to employees, particularly since the convenience store chain's vertical integration gives it so much control over quality control.
"It begins with partnerships," Ellingson said. This includes internal partnerships and those outside the organization; not only vendors, but also the local, state and federal governments a company works with.
He also stressed the importance of science to verify that a product is what it says it is, and the use of third-party audits at multiple stages to be sure the company is on track.
According to Ellingson, taking care of the top five risk factors will also do a great deal to maintain food safety, These risk factors are:
- Purchasing food from unsafe sources;
- Failing to cook food adequately;
- Using contaminated equipment;
- Poor personal hygiene; and
- Holding food at improper temperatures.
"I'm convinced that food safety starts at the top," said Krebs, noting that Rutter's CEO Scott Hartman is himself ServSafe-certified.
From there, food safety is an expectation of every employee during their onboarding and beyond. The development of foodservice employees starts with safe food handling, sanitation and temperatures over recipes and products, according to Krebs.
The first thing taught is the process for washing hands, which sounds simple but establishes the importance of food safety. Teams are trained to detect issues and follow the systems in place if they spot an issue.
At Rutter's, an important piece of food safety is that the team is certified beyond the minimum requirements. Plus, the retailer has systems in place to identify potential risks and react with an "all hands on deck" approach to resolution.
Existing systems and the company's culture of safety helped Rutter's during the 2018 outbreak of E. coli in romaine lettuce. Prior to a confirmed directive from the Food & Drug Administration, Rutter's removed all romaine lettuce from sale and inventory; put sanitation protocols in place at all stores; communicated the decision to customers and staff; and accepted the financial impact. In the aftermath, feedback from Rutter's customers was very positive, as they weren't sure what they should or shouldn't be eating at the time.
At Cumberland Farms, the company is further developing its corporate food safety department to enhance the existing field team.
"We want to modernize how we do it," Zenlea said.
The three main elements of any food safety program, he explained, are prediction, prevention and reaction. Examples of preventative controls in the supply chain include a supplier compliance system, third-party audits, remote temperature monitoring in trailers and in stores, and ingredient and private label product testing.
Zenlea pointed out that while apps and systems that enable employees to report illnesses are useful, they are only as good as the person doing the reporting, and symptoms can be misleading. For example, a female employee might not have a communicable stomach bug; she might be pregnant, which is not a condition she is obligated to disclose before she wants to.
He also highlighted the fact that many food safety certification programs are designed for the traditional restaurant industry, not c-stores, which can limit the value gained from them. Cumberland Farms is currently working on a certification program that is designed specifically for the c-store industry.
Following the roundtable, session attendees were presented with various scenarios involving food safety incidents and invited to discuss how they would respond. The best course of action was not always clear, but as the presenters pointed out, the most important thing is to think ahead and plan for potential real-life occurrences.
The 2019 NACS Show is taking place Oct. 1-4 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta.