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    Playing it Safe

    The threat of food terrorism, added to the usual concern over accidental contamination, prompts retailer vigilance.

    By Matthew Enis

    Months later, the Sept. 11 attacks raised the specter of bioterrorism throughout the United States. Media attention focused primarily on airborne pathogens such as anthrax, but government officials also expressed concern about vulnerabilities in the nation's food-supply chain.

    Retailers offering foodservice must be aware of the risks inherent to preparing and serving food, as well as potential new threats related to terrorism. Aside from liability, a handful of sick customers can permanently damage a location's reputation; repercussions could spread throughout a chain.

    Restaurants and other foodservice outlets historically have not been targets of terrorists. Deadly chemicals are generally difficult to cloak in food, and most pathogens are usually eliminated during the course of proper preparation.

    In fact, the two largest cases of food terrorism in the United States have resulted in no deaths. However, foodborne diseases caused accidentally by improper preparation or cross-contamination lead to an average of 76 million minor illnesses, 315,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year in the United States, according to statistics reported recently by Scientific American.

    Priority One

    Confidence was the foodservice brass ring for the c-store industry in the 1990s. Consumer attitudes toward c-store food have certainly improved as premium coffee programs, co-branded quick-service

    restaurants and high-quality proprietary menus have spread throughout the country, and an ongoing commitment to safety is necessary to maintain that confidence.

    Mechanicsville, Va.-based Fas Mart sells more than $750,000 worth of food per year at several of its 57 proprietary hot delis. Their foodservice sales have played an important role in the company's rebound from reorganization. This diverse food offering means Fas Mart's food safety concerns are more complex than many other c-stores', so Russ Quick, director of foodservice at the 170-store chain, maintains strict protocol over internal foodservice handling while casting a sharp eye on the procedures of would-be partners.

    "I review the HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) procedures of all the suppliers we work with," said Quick. "In case there's a recall, I make sure that we're prepared to handle it internally, and I also make sure that we have a record of our suppliers' procedures for managing recalls in house before I'll consider a partnership."

    Jeff King, vice president of marketing for Dallas-based APW Wyott Foodservice Equipment Co., adds, "The critical element of foodservice success is moving products from the supply side through preparation on the retail side in a way that is both safe and cost-effective." Like many manufacturers, the company helps ensure this safety by working closely with food makers. Wyott sought input from several major hot dog manufacturers when creating its roller-grill program.

    Quick ensures that internal standards are met by training employees with a complete operations manual; workers are tested on their understanding of preparation procedures before being allowed to handle food. District and store managers are also required to participate in training courses for one or two weeks, respectively.

    "None of our employees can start work before they've received a State of California food handler's card," said Steve Zeif, director of dining services at San Diego State University. Zeif controls foodservice programs at five convenience stores, 19 quick-service restaurants and several bakeries, commissaries and dining halls serving the 33,000-student campus.

    The campus's "Monty's Market" c-stores serve foods ranging from soups and grilled foods to proprietary microwaveable meals. Zeif ensures that safety protocols are followed at every location by sending a small team of inspectors on regular rounds through the campus' many foodservice operations.

    "A lot of restaurants, quick-service operations and convenience stores have an adversarial relationship with their state health department," Zeif said. "We try to avoid that by demanding even stricter standards internally and inspecting our operations more frequently."

    Chains with a significant stake in foodservice may want to consider instituting a similar program of internal inspections. Zeif argued that it's also better to start off on the right foot with state health inspectors by inquiring about regulations, equipment and best practices, instead of trying to hide problems later.

    Most current food safety programs are at least partially inspired by HACCP, a simple system designed by the U.S. government to control food hazards. The system works by defining specific points in a particular food's preparation where it might become contaminated. Steps must be taken at those "critical control points" to ensure that the food remains safe.

    The guide suggests grouping menu items into three categories: foods that do not have to be cooked, foods that are cooked and served immediately, and foods that are cooked and require additional cooling, reheating or other handling before being served.

    Each category demands a different level of attention because each step of preparation presents an additional opportunity for hazards to occur. Standard operating procedures, such as rules for washing hands, thawing foods and sanitizing work areas, should be tailored for each category of menu items to prevent hazards during each preparation step.

    Of course, there are exceptions. Although the preparation is much simpler, raw oysters would pose a much greater health risk than par-baked breads. As a result, storage guidelines are the other primary component of the HACCP system.

    By the Book

    Many foods, especially meats, can harbor dangerous bacteria that will multiply in a fairly broad temperature range — generally from about 40 degrees to about 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Food should be stored at temperatures below this range; HACCP has guidelines for minimum internal temperatures that each type of food must reach during cooking and maintain during display.

    The United States government publishes "Managing Food Safety: A HACCP Principles Guide for Operators of Food Establishments at the Retail Level," a guide for c-store operators to use when designing their own foodservice safety program.

    This and virtually all of the FDA's other documents related to retail foodservice are available on the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition's Web site at www. cfsan.fda.gov. Other government guidelines, including a link to the complete HACCP report, are available at www.foodsafety.gov.

    Safe food is the very least that your customers should expect from your operation; developing and maintaining a solid safety program is essential to foodservice success. "The number one reason that people avoid purchasing food at c-stores is a lack of confidence," said King. "Food safety training and equipment maintenance cost money, but it will cost you even more if you don't do it well."

    By Matthew Enis
    • About Matthew Enis

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