Food Safety Issues and Training Methods for Ready-to-Eat Foods in the Grocery Industry
By Binkley, Margaret; Ghiselli, Richard
As Americans have become more pressed for time, the use of convenient, simplified meals has become a way of life. One aspect of this trend, known as Home Meal Replacement (HMR), has increased in sales since its inception. Between 1999 and 2001, the average annual expenditure per consumer rose 5.6 percent, and $958 per person per year was spent in 2002. Along with this growth, food safety risks may have increased. The study reported here examined efforts being undertaken by grocery and convenience stores to control the wholesomeness of HMR food items. After a convenience sample of 500 grocery store executives was identified, a 32-item questionnaire was developed and mailed to the executives. The results indicate that the industry has taken food safety seriously, with only 10 percent reporting that they have no food safety training. The executives cited employee turnover as a major concern in food safety today, along with lack of food safety knowledge of the consumer and improper holding temperatures.
In 1985, Boston Chicken opened its first store in Massachusetts, offering rotisserie-roasted chicken and a quick, convenient way to bring dinner home to the family. Thus began the frenzy of what became known as Home Meal Replacement (HMR). Since that time, HMR has developed into a leading trend in the food service and grocer)’ and convenience store industries.
As Americans have become more pressed for time, convenient, simplified meals have become a way of life. This desire for convenience has led many supermarkets to invest considerable time and money into HMR areas with the hope of recouping some of the profits they have lost to food service providers (Reyes, 2002).
The HMR sector of the U.S. economy has increased in sales since its inception. Between 1999 and 2001, the average annual expenditure per consumer rose 5.6 percent (U.S. Department of Labor, 2003). Total sales in this sector are expected to hit S170 billion by the year 2005 (Shaw, 2000).
With increased sales, there may be an increase in food safety risks. Even with perfect production and distribution practices, consumers may not follow safe-handling procedures. For example, a Prevention Magazine/NEC poll found that 29 percent of those surveyed wait two hours or more before eating takeout foods from restaurants without having first refrigerated them (Larson, 1998). Also many grocer)’ stores are adding kitchens and unfamiliar equipment and processes to their businesses. Finally, some foods are more likely to be involved in foodborne illnesses than others, and ensuring their wholesomeness poses greater challenges to retailers (Gourmet Retailer, 2001).
The study reported here attempted to determine the food safety efforts being undertaken by various grocery and convenience stores throughout the country. Specifically, it examined the food safety training systems that are in place, including the methods used to train employees. In addition, it determined the type of food safety information being presented to the public and how it is disseminated.
Home Meal Replacement
HMR is difficult to define, because the meaning varies depending on the source. According to the Food Marketing Institute, HMR is “foods prepared in a store and consumed at home or in-store which require little or no preparation on the part of the consumer.” The Beef Information Center defines HMR as “any product with a convenience or added value component” (Grier, 2001). For this study, the definition of HMR will follow that of the Food Marketing Institute. HMR will be defined as foods (meals) that are prepared in a store and consumed at home or in-store and that require little or no preparation on the part of the consumer.
Many factors have contributed to the growth of the HMR market, including rising incomes and time constraints. In two-income households for example, there is less time to devote to meal preparation, and, as a result, more is spent on food away from home (Bowers, 2000). ACNielsen took an in-depth look at the HMR consumer in 1998. The results indicated that the average HMR household had an income greater than $50,000, three or more members, and an employed female head of household younger than 44. The most loyal users of HMR were young singles, childless couples, and new families. Also, 50 percent of Americans “carried in” a meal at least once a week, and 55 percent of the households purchased a meal for at-home dining at least several times a month (Cassano, 1999).
The upshot is that the demand for meals requiring little or no preparation at home has increased tremendously. Ready-to-eat (RTE) meals are one of the major concerns of supermarket executives. According to Food Technology, the number-one food trend in 2003 was “Heat and Eat” (Sloan, 2003). RTE foods and foods packaged for on- the-go consumption were on America’s most-wanted list of food product attributes. Some believe that within the next few years RTE foods along with frozen main-dish entrees will surpass home-made foods as the most frequently served main dish (Sloan). Despite this success, there have been many challenges for grocery stores, including time, labor, and food safety.
To say the least, food safety is a major concern (Dummer, 1998). There are a number of risks for HMR retailers. To make matters worse, the complex food system, high labor turnover, and increasingly potent pathogens are hampering the food safety measures that supermarkets are now using.
Estimates of the cost of a foodborne-illness outbreak range between $15,000 and $75,000. These amounts include lost employee wages, negative publicity, legal fees, and the costs of any recalls. Effective food safety plans and a well-trained staff can help prevent an unwanted outbreak of foodborne illness. As food moves from farm to table, repeated handling increases the risk of temperature abuse, cross-contamination, lapses in sanitation, and a host of other potential hazards. Moreover, as the complexities of the food distribution and retailing system increase, so does the need for more stringent food safety controls. Because of this situation, food safety training and certification are an important part of any food safety plan (Dummer, 1998).
In addition to the operational risks, supermarkets must also consider the food safety knowledge of their consumers. Several studies have found that consumers are not knowledgeable about food safety, and those who are may not practice safe procedures in their own home (Anderson, Shuster, Hansen, Levy, & VoIk, 2004). Research also indicates that 25 percent of foodborne-illness outbreaks are caused by inappropriate food-handling practices by consumers in their homes (Williamson, Gravani, & Lawless, 1992).
The Partnership for Food Safety Education has found that even though Americans know practicing food safety is very important (92 percent), they do not consistently handle food safely. Only 53 percent of those sampled indicated that they always wash their hands before handling raw meat or chicken, and only 66 percent consistently clean their cutting boards and utensils. Less than half either refrigerate food within two hours or keep fruits and vegetables separate from raw meat and poultry (Partnership for Food Safety Education, 2004).
In a study conducted for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Fight BAC! Campaign, consumers were videotaped in their homes preparing a meal. The researchers found that handwashing was inadequate and that consumers did not follow safe food-handling practices. Also, cross-contamination of raw meat, seafood, and eggs with RTE foods happened multiple times during preparation. The lack of proper food-handling practices increases the risk of contamination (Anderson et al., 2004).
Employees are also a concern for supermarkets. High employee turnover and limited food safety knowledge are the pertinent issues here. Supermarkets employ many high school students who normally have not had food safety training. One reason may be that it may be expensive to train them and that they may be employed by the supermarket for only a short time (Urbanski, 2003). Nevertheless it is imperative to have employees trained in product storage, sanitization, and cross-contamination prevention.
Needless to say, food safety practices should be an integral part of day-to-day operations and should include a thorough training program. Grocery stores that have been successful in their commitment to food safety have improved their quality assurance programs, have provided the proper food safety training for their employees, and have worked with local health officials to ensure that proper programs are in place (Major, 2004).
In order to prepare a large number of RTE meals, groceries have made design changes. Switching from being a conventional store to one having a large kitchen takes food safety hazards and awareness to another level. For example, health inspections become an integral part of the daily routine since many HMR items are cooked from scratch. With on-site preparation, there is a larger chance of foodborne outbreaks from pathogens like Listeria or Salmonella. As a result, grocery executives need to have in place a detailed plan on how they wouldhandle an outbreak, including working with the health inspector in relaying information to the public (McKemie, 1996).
Third-party audits are one way grocery stores are getting a handle on food safety. It is recommended that these auditors perform not only inspections, but also microbial testing. This approach validates food-handling and sanitation practices and ensures that customers can be reasonably sure they are buying safe food (McKemie, 1996).
A convenience sample of 500 grocery industry executives was identified for the national study reported here. (The study was funded by a grant from the Arthur C. Avery Food-service Research Center at Purdue University and allowed for a sample of 500.) The sample was chosen from Progressive Grocer’s Marketing Guidebook, 2002, a database provided by Trade Dimensions. The 500 respondents were randomly chosen from the list of 19,532 grocery executives. Initially, executives who were involved in training, food safety and sanitation, or deli and HMR operations were selected. To reduce the number to 500, a maximum of two executives from companies with more than one operation were identified.
A 32-item questionnaire was developed to collect data about grocery operations including 1) food safety programs currently being used,
2) the type of food safety information being disseminated to the public and the method of delivery, 3) the top concerns facing the industry today, and 4) general company demographics. The instrument was pre-tested to ensure that the questionnaire was properly worded and structured; it was sent to food safety executives within the industry, as well as to several individuals who have developed food safety programs for the grocery industry. Also, executives of an international association that works directly with the industry were involved.
The questionnaire was mailed, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope and cover letter explaining the importance of the study. Two weeks after the initial mailing, a followup postcard was sent either to thank the executives for their participation or to remind them to return the questionnaire if they had not done so. To ensure confidentially, no markings were placed on the questionnaires that would have allowed the researchers to match them to specific respondents. Descriptive statistics were used to analyze data.
Characteristics of Respondent Companies
A total of 500 questionnaires were mailed; of those, 26 came back as undeliverable. Nevertheless, 31 usable surveys were returned for a response rate of 6.5 percent. Given the response rate and the small sample size, the results should not be generalized to the grocery industry as a whole.
The largest number of respondents, 58.6 percent, were employed by supermarkets; 37.9 percent were employed by independent grocers, and 3.5 percent worked for a supercenter. For (average) weekly sales volume, 44.8 percent of the participants reported sales between $100,000 and $300,000, 41.4 percent reported sales between $300,000 and $500,000, and the remainder (6.9 percent) had sales either in excess of $500,000 or less than $100,000. More than half of the respondents indicated that less than 3 percent of sales could be attributed to RTE. Only one respondent had RTE sales greater than 10 percent of weekly sales (Table 1).
A number of questions were asked about the food safety programs in place. With respect to certification, 90.3 percent of respondents indicated that their company required food safety certification for employees. Only one store, however, required certification for all of its employees. The others had the following requirements: 22 required certification of department heads; 16 indicated that store managers were certified; 13 required assistant managers to be certified; three required that category managers be certified; and nine indicated that all food handlers had to be certified.
The training programs being used by a majority of the respondents were either a state or local program (12) or ServSafe (11). Others either used a company-developed program, the National Registry of Food Safety Professionals, or Experior.
As for the type of information being disseminated to the public with respect to RTE foods, each of the following were identified by more than 10 of the respondents: information concerning reheating instructions, shelf life information, storage instructions, and suggested cooking procedures. The most popular method of distributing food safety information to the public was printing it on the package label. Signs, pamphlets, and verbal instructions were also popular ways of conveying food safety information. Less popular methods included public-address announcements, information on the company’s Web site, and public service announcements.
According to the respondents in the survey, the top three issues facing the grocery industry today are 1) employee turnover (n = 21), 2) lack of food safety knowledge by consumers (n = 13), and 3) improper holding temperatures (n= 12).
Discussions and Conclusions
According to the results of the survey, the grocery industry is tackling the issue of food safety. Only 9.7 percent of the respondents indicated that they did not have food safety training for any of their employees, while 22 of the 28 respondents certified all their department heads. Respondents also indicated that store managers and assistant managers were certified. There is still room for improvement, though, as only nine respondents indicated that they certified their food handlers and only one had all employees certified.
Turnover rate can also become problematic. Respondents identified the amount of turnover as the most difficult issue facing the industry. Progressive Grocer also has listed it as the number-one food safety problem for supermarkets (Major, 2004). Because of high turnover, some groceries find it difficult to justify spending money on continued training.
There has also been criticism concerning training and communication, and, in particular, the use of technology (Berta, 2004). The majority of food service establishments use classroom instruction, with book or video as the preferred training methods. Few use computer-based or Web-based instruction.
Food safety training is extremely important in the grocery industry because consumers may lack food safety knowledge. Training consumers is considered one of the industry’s top-three food safety challenges.
Trends and Concerns in the Packaging of RTE Foods
According to the Food Marketing Institute, consumers are paying more attention to labels on the food products they are purchasing and tend to appreciate handling information (Larson, 1998). Respondents in the study reported here indicated that printing information on package labels was the number-one way they use to disseminate food safety information to the public. Other methods include pamphlets and verbal instructions via employees. The respondents indicated that they also provided their customers with information on reheating, shelf life, storage, and cooking procedures.
Grocery stores are concerned about packaging and the effects it will have on the safety of RTE food. Two of the top packaging trends noted by the respondents were that 1) packaging is more food safety oriented and that 2) packaging is being designed with consumer convenience in mind. The next two trends were increasing shelf life to maintain the integrity of the product and choosing microwavable and oven-durable containers (Table 2).
In conclusion, the study reported here found that grocery store executives consider food safety one of their most important challenges. The need to implement food safety training practices not only for their own staff, but also for the consumers who patronize their establishments, is evident. Other food safety initiatives include identifying and implementing a sanitation program for the HMR area and having a detailed plan to handle foodborne outbreaks.
Grocery executives can accomplish these goals with help from local health departments and health inspectors. During inspections, employees should accompany inspectors not only to learn where problems or potential problems lie, but also to learn how prevent these problems from happening in the future. Upon completion, the inspector has an opportunity to help grocers prepare an action plan to address deficiencies within the HMR area.
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Margaret Binkley, M.A., M.S.
Richard Ghiselli, Ph.D., C.C.E.
Corresponding Author: Dr. Richard Ghiselli, Associate Professor, Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, Purdue University, 700 West State, Stone Hall Room 153-A, West Lafayette, IN 47907. E- mail: ghiselli@purdue. edu.
Copyright National Environmental Health Association Oct 2005