Carol M. Bareuther
Prevention is key to preventing foodborne illness.
The supermarket deli is a food lover’s destination. But this nirvana of memorable meals can become a nightmare for both the human being affected and the store’s brand if someone gets sick. Each year in the U.S., some 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from eating unsafe food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), headquartered in Atlanta, GA.
Prevention is key. This means it’s critical to target the common factor in every food safety-related incident, according to Neil Coole, director of food and retail supply chain for Herndon, VA-based BSI America, who in October 2022 presented a webinar titled Essential Concepts of Food Safety Culture, for the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA). That factor is people. As Coole says, when an unsafe food problem occurs, “someone somewhere got it wrong.”
“Food safety knowledge, attitudes, and practices of food handlers are critical to preventing foodborne illness,” says Ashley Eisenbeiser, MS, CFS, senior director of food and product safety programs for FMI — The Food Industry Association, in Arlington, VA.
Here are three ways an operator can help deli employees be food safe:
REINFORCE THE BASICS
Foodborne infections caused by one of the eight most likely pathogens fell by 26% in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the largest single-year change in the quarter century of surveillance by the CDC’s Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet).
“My speculation on the reason for the decrease is that less food was being consumed in food service as many restaurants closed,” says Douglas Marshall, Ph.D., CFS, technical director of the Atlanta, GA-headquartered Refrigerated Foods Association (RFA), and the Fort Collins, CO-based chief scientific officer for Eurofins Microbiology Inc.
“In turn, people bought more packaged foods at the grocery store. Manufacturers had to shift focus to retail. In both settings, and because of COVID, I think there was a heightened awareness and overall attention to sanitation in the workplace. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) have intensified interest in the deli over the last three years. What’s positive is that they’ve found no major deficiencies. They did find that the basics, such as proper handwashing, preventing cross-contamination, cleaning equipment like deli slicers, and keeping foods at the proper temperatures, are all integral to a food-safe operation.”
Proper personal hygiene practices are vitally important, especially for those in direct contact with the food, according to Matt Taylor, senior manager of consulting and technical Services for the Ann Arbor, MI-based National Sanitation Foundation’s (NSF) global food division. “We cannot overemphasize the importance of proper hand washing, as this is one of the main causes of foodborne disease outbreaks.”
Beyond handwashing, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a greater focus on employee health programs to ensure ill food workers are excluded from working in a food establishment while sick, adds FMI’s Eisenbeiser. “As part of these programs, we are seeing companies offer flexibility with work conditions to encourage employees with symptoms, as well as family members/caregivers with symptoms, to stay at home.”
Clean hands, clean surfaces, and clean utensils are key to preventing cross-contamination. Another way, says NSF’s Taylor, “is through proper washing, rinsing and sanitizing, and ensuring that raw and ready-to-eat foods are separated.”
Pre-sliced deli meat sales increased 4.5% in 2022 compared to 2.4% for service deli meats during the same 52 weeks ending in December, according to the IDDBA report, 2022: A Year of Mixed Results for Deli, Dairy, and Bakery, by Anne-Marie Roerink, president of 210 Analytics LLC, using IRI data. Similarly, pre-sliced deli cheeses grew 6.8% in dollars during the same time, with service counter dollars down 2.8%. Despite increased sales of pre-sliced deli meats and cheeses, slice-to-order programs are still a strong fixture in the deli.
Having written slicer cleaning policies is one of the recommendations from the recent FDA and USDA FSIS research. So is a recommendation to inspect in-use food slicers every four hours, as this can help control contamination by bacteria like listeria. Foods sold in the deli that have a risk of listeria include soft and semi-soft cheeses like feta, brie, blue-veined cheeses, and queso blanco and queso fresco; deli meats, ready-to-eat meals; foods at ready-to-eat salad and sandwich bars; refrigerated pates or meat spreads; and refrigerated smoked seafood such as salmon.
“Two important features of our Premium S Series slicers make cleaning and remembering to clean this equipment easier,” says Ryan Feasel, MBA, CFSP, eastern regional sales manager for the Globe Food Equipment Co., in Dayton, OH. “First, we’ve opened the space under the knife and around the carriage for easy cleaning. Secondly, we have a new, patent-pending four-hour cleaning timer. The timing starts from the first slice and there is a 30-minute warning before it automatically shuts down to be cleaned.”
Cooking foods to a proper temperature and making sure hot foods stay hot, and cold foods stay cold, are cardinal rules for food safety. This is especially important as retail deli-prepared foods have increased in both units and sales in 2022, according to Roerink’s report, with an 11.9% dollar growth. The sub-categories that gained in sales by double-digits were soup and chili (21.2%), entrées (15.7%), combo meals (15.6%), pizza (13.8%), prepared meats (12.8%), sandwiches (12.4%) and salads (11%).
“We have a couple of recent innovations on the refrigerated display case side,” says Jack Sjogren, western region design center specialist for Dover Food Retail, in El Dorado Hills, CA. “The first is that we have released sliding lids for the lower bunker case styles to help increase product integrity and lower energy. Many shoppers also perceive food as being safer behind lids or glass doors since there is a transparent protection layer to the package. The second innovation we’ve done is a redesign on many of our refrigerated display case shelves. We re-engineered the shelf, so it is lower in weight with increased strength. This helps the merchandisers by making it easier to adjust during different merchandising sets.”
New technologies include new packaging materials that allow food businesses and consumers to track the time/temperature of ready-to-eat or refrigerated products, tells Eric Edmunds, senior director of food safety for The Acheson Group, in Swan Lake, MT. “Such technologies can be very helpful in the all-important practice of temperature monitoring, especially for foods that need to ‘stay hot’ or ‘stay cold.’”
Online and delivery retail food orders increased by some 50% during the pandemic, according to the report, Navigating the market headwinds: the state of grocery retail 2022, released in May 2022 by McKinsey & Company, in New York, NY. Looking ahead, the report predicted online orders with a scheduled delivery will increase by 5%, online click-and-collect orders by 4%, and instant delivery by 2% in the coming year.
“A key focus to consider for the future is being able to consider and control the flow and safety of food, e.g., for food delivery services,” says Karla Acosta, director of food safety for The Acheson Group. “This is especially important for foods that need to stay hot or cold. Temperature monitoring and maintenance are critical components of food safety.”
While there has been a decline in customer-facing deli counters in the U.K., in the U.S. these are still going strong, says NSF’s Tyler. “Noticeable is that labor is in short supply. It’s possible that an employee working on checkout may find themselves supporting a short-staffed deli. If that’s the case, assure the temporary food handler has sufficient food safety training.”
More companies are adopting innovative training programs with different delivery mechanisms to boost knowledge retention while providing flexibility by increasing convenience and decreasing seat time, adds FMI’s Eisenbeiser. “One example is microlearning. Microlearning is a type of training that breaks training content down into smaller chunks. Rather than having to take the entire course at once, associates can take one microlearning lesson at a time.”
The IDDBA’s Food Safety Certification Reimbursement Program offers its retail members who certify deli, as well as dairy and bakery associates and managers, monetary reimbursement for food safety certification.
“The reimbursement is up to $2,000 annually for certification exams and is designed to help get that training to employees in the store,” says Whitney Atkins, vice president of marketing for the Madison, WI-headquartered organization.
KEEP UP WITH WHAT’S NEW
Allergens and traceability are among the latest hot topics in food safety for the supermarket deli.
“In 2022, sesame was added as a Big 9 allergen requiring labeling, so sesame must be handled just as you do all other allergens,” says The Acheson Group’s Edmunds.
Sesame also has many other names, adds Lily Yang, The Acheson Group’s senior manager for food safety. “These include benne, benne seed and benniseed; gingelly and gingelly oil; seeds; sesamol and sesamolina; sesamum indicum; sim sim; til; and tahini (sesame paste). Tahini is one of the most important to know as it is used in hummus and can be an ingredient in baklava as well.”
While the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) doesn’t apply to retail delis and foods prepared in-store, many of the FSMA rules apply to the suppliers of ingredients and products used to prepare food sold in the retail deli and fresh prepared departments. One is the Food Traceability Final Rule. Foods subject to the final rule requirements appear on the Food Traceability List (FTL) and include fresh-cut fruits and vegetables, shell eggs and nut butters, as well as certain fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, ready-to-eat deli salads, cheeses and seafood products.
“The core of the final rule is a requirement that companies which manufacture, process, pack or hold food on the FTL maintain records including Key Data Elements (KDEs) related to Critical Tracking Events (CTEs) and provide this information to the FDA within 24 hours or some reasonable time to which the FDA agrees,” says Susan Laine, communications and public engagement staff at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in College Park, MD.
The Food Traceability Final Rule became effective Jan. 20, 2023, and the FDA has set three years for compliance.
Supplier programs play an important role in assuring food safety and food is purchased from approved sources, adds The Acheson Group’s Edmunds. “Developing programs to approve only those suppliers that are compliant with preventive controls will help to ensure the food you provide to consumers was safely processed and held before you acquire it.”
Despite changes in consumer behaviors or deli operations that may be on the horizon, the need for safe food will remain a constant, says FMI’s Eisenbeiser. “Consumers’ expectation of safe food will not change.”
THE 2.0 RETURN OF SALAD BARS
Salad bars were closed in most retail delis at the onset of COVID, with a move to packaged foods for food safety. Now, salad and food bars have returned in many locations, and general trends toward ready-to-eat foods are growing, says Eric Edmunds, senior director of food safety for The Acheson Group, in Swan Lake, MT. “We are back to a new normal in this area in terms of operations. Because of this, retailers must be prepared to manage and ensure food safety in this space.”
When Claire Biesty, the Jacksonville, NC-based senior marketing manager at Sodexo Government Services walked onto the exhibit floor at IDDBA 2022, the Madison, WI-headquartered International Deli Dairy Bakery Association’s annual show, she immediately knew how she wanted to re-tool the self-serve salad bars in the 34 military commissaries from Maine to Georgia in which her company manages the delis and bakeries. That is, with an Artic salad bar, a “smart” modular full-concept alternative to traditional salad bars created by Picadeli. The Gothenburg, Sweden-headquartered company entered the U.S. market in 2021 in partnership with Albertsons Company, with six bars in Safeway, Acme and King’s locations in the Northeast.
“There are so many food safety, as well as quality control elements, built into the bar,” says Biesty. “For example, there is a hand sanitizer dispenser at the start of the bar, suspended tongs over each salad selection to prevent cross-contamination, there’s a monitoring system with alerts for temperature changes on the bar, and there is a QR code with each selection that gives a full ingredient listing. Best of all, it’s easy to use via a handheld device. My employees were so excited by all the controls and data in the palm of their hands that they called the device their iPhone 15.”
Customized food selections are pre-made offsite by Picadeli and delivered to the site where employees stock and monitor the bar. At Biesty’s first location to install the bar, selections include four greens, seven proteins, 12 composed salads, 20 fresh toppings, 10 salad dressings, and five dried toppings. While still in a pilot phase since opening the bar to customers in November 2022, Biesty says in addition to food safety, there have been both incremental and top-line sales. A big factor, she says, is that customers can choose what they like, an advantage over pre-packaged salads.
“Most of our Artic bars have been installed in the deli, rather than in produce,” says Ella Sherif, manager of planning and execution for Picadeli US, headquartered in Los Angeles, CA. “We’ve expanded over the past year to Ahold banners, Giant and Martin’s Foods and more are on the way.”