Grocerants: How Grocery Stores Have Taken on Restaurant Food Safety Challenges
Grocery stores have transformed the food consumption experience. Whereas shoppers were once singularly focused on traversing the aisles to find the best deal on breakfast cereal, dinner ingredients and other food staples, there is now ample opportunity to meet with friends, purchase and enjoy a full meal AND check out with essential grocery items, all in one stop. But has this emerging trend increased your risk of food safety failures?
The convenience and immediacy of the grocerant (grocery store + restaurant) concept is meant to draw in more of the shopper’s wallet share, and it does. According to foodservice research company Technomic, “Over the past seven to 10 years, supermarket foodservice has shown dynamic growth. The segment has experienced annual sales growth of more than 10% in certain years and, at present, is still among the three fastest-growing segments in all of foodservice.” In addition, NPD reports that in-store dining and take-out of prepared foods from grocers has grown nearly 30% since 2008. Grocerants are proving to be especially enticing to the Millennial generation, which has historically been a difficult target group for supermarket sales.
While grocerants drive increased revenue, however, this new experience of combined food purchase and consumption also heightens the food safety risks associated with food distribution and food preparation. Here’s an inside look at why this is happening, what challenges it brings and how you can minimize your brand’s own risk by gaining visibility into both the safety performance of your supply chain AND any pathogen testing you conduct at your store.
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Blending Food Purchase & Consumption
Just like in a restaurant setting, the conditions inherent at grocerants (e.g., humidity levels, temperatures, storage and usage of different types of foods, direct handling of items by employees and/or consumers) present a major susceptibility to food safety risks like Listeria growth, cross-contamination and more. From sandwiches and wraps made with ready-to-eat meats and cheeses to create-your-own salads and fully cooked, portioned meals, there’s a journey that each food takes before landing in the consumer’s hands -- and any number of factors have the potential to impact its safety along the way.
Think about it from the beginning: Food arrives from your suppliers at your grocery store loading dock. Even if one item was negatively affected in the production, storage or delivery phases, it can impact other foods in the area. Then the food is unloaded, stored again and eventually handled and prepared for on-site consumption. If your kitchen team is cooking and prepping already unsafe foods, the risk of danger to the consumer (and your brand!) increases exponentially. There’s only one way to ensure you’re working with safe foods from the start, and that’s by adopting a solution that enables you to access and analyze food safety performance information from your suppliers.
But, wait, there’s more. Now that incoming supplies are in the hands of your team, can you confirm that the food preparation environment is being monitored for pathogens, contaminants and anything that can harm the consumer? Given that grocery stores warehouse everything from meat and poultry to produce and dairy, combined with the fact that many of these foods sit on the shelf (or on display) for long periods of time, there are limitless opportunities for sustained contamination. Here are some additional causes for food safety concern in this unique foodservice arena:
- Improper or insufficient training and execution of sanitation and employee practices, including cleaning of food and non-food contact surfaces, equipment and touch points
- Inconsistent or irregularly monitored temperature controls that don’t allow for busy times of the day when cooler and case doors tend to be opened more frequently
- Floors and drains that are not properly sanitized and cleaned of standing water
- Traffic patterns and product flow that heighten the risk of cross-contamination, i.e. raw meats in close proximity to ready-to-eat products
- Mismanagement of use-by dates and times and/or failure to ensure proper display/shelf life of prepared foods
Compounding these issues is public perception. NPD reports that the number of consumers who believe prepared meals offered at supermarkets are safe to eat has declined from 66% to 58% since 2006. This poses a real challenge for grocerants to elevate their reputation for food safety -- one that you are severely limited in overcoming if you don’t have an automated, efficient way to collect and access your on-site pathogen testing data in real time, as well as manage, analyze and communicate that data effectively.
Mixed Food Safety Regulations, Programs and Concerns
The responsibility of ensuring food safety at grocerants is a two-pronged approach because it must integrate both grocery store chain AND restaurant nuances. Safe food handling and management in a grocery store setting involves its own set of priorities and standards, which differ significantly from the expectations for a restaurant. Nonetheless, both are subject to government compliance audits and the possibility of experiencing food safety issues that result in foodborne illness, recall implications and other brand-damaging consequences.
So, what should grocerants be doing to address the duality of their food safety obligation? Consider some of the tips provided by a recent Supermarket News article:
- Especially if there’s an opportunity for customers to watch food preparation, food safety practices must be clearly demonstrated, including area cleanliness, wearing and changing gloves, hand washing, using hair nets and beard nets, changing out tools and utensils between tasks, etc.
- When preparing food in large batches, you can use the same equipment for a long period of time without having to clean it and switch to a different task, but when you prepare food in smaller batches or make items to order, the switch necessitates different food safety practices, such as cleaning as you go and between every order.
- As you use products and prepare foods at a different pace than a typical grocery store department, plan properly for smaller batches or carryover, specifically as it relates to date-marking. If you don’t plan to serve it that day, it needs to be date-marked. Any items set out for sale must also be date-marked.
- Understand how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Menu Labeling requirement impacts grocerants. If you are required to have menu labeling, consider what information to post, where to post it, what font size to use for legibility and more. If you are not required to have menu labeling, consider doing it anyway to cater to your consumers and positively impact their perception of your brand.
- In open self-service areas, ensure that foods, serving stations and grab-and-go stations are in plain view of employees who can monitor to prevent foods from being tampered with or contaminated (which may necessitate additional training for staff members).
- Focus on overall store cleanliness and maintenance, with special attention to issues like trash receptacles and pest control, a separate entrance for the eating area and additional staffing to clean and maintain areas of the restaurant, including bussing tables.
Stepping Up Your Food Safety Game
The aforementioned are valuable practices for grocerants to adopt, but the truth is if you want to minimize your risk of being sued or losing valuable market share, it’s critical to step up your efforts by integrating smart food safety solutions.
Every brand is under scrutiny from the public, as well as the watchful eye of the FDA, to ensure that today’s food safety standards are being upheld. Manufacturers, in particular, are taking action to execute plans that meet evolved regulations and protect their brands from the risks of a food recall. These programs include:
- Initiating comprehensive, prevention-based controls to shift from reactive to proactive food safety tactics
- Instituting a supplier verification process to ensure that suppliers have the proper preventive controls in place
- Designing a voluntary, well-communicated recall response plan
- Maintaining organized, accessible and up-to-date documentation via an automated system for managing the entire testing program, tracking all new and historical data, creating audit trails and reports, making sound decisions about corrective and preventive actions and noting every compliance effort
- Adopting visibility and communication tools that keep every department fully apprised of important information and alerts
One of the best ways grocerants can step up their food safety game is by leveraging dynamic software designed to reduce the risk of food recalls and avoid making your customers sick. Comprehensive food safety cannot truly be achieved without standardized, documented, shareable and automated processes to safeguard against contamination and other risks across the full food journey from your suppliers to your consumers’ mouths.
By taking advantage of a solution like Corvium CONTROL, you empower your stores to:
- Visualize preventive control points on an intuitive floor plan
- Identify locations and patterns within your food safety plan
- Communicate quickly and effectively
- Unify documentation between departments
- Leverage automated notifications and alerts
- Systematize the scheduling of preventative controls and testing
- Easily access all sampling data, testing results and corrective action records
- Digitize documentation, archival and auditing preparation
- Control document administration and accessibility
- Develop customized and detailed workflows
- Create functional checklists for effective change management
- Produce intricate audit trails
- Generate industry-standard and customized reports
With the added benefit of Corvium INSIGHTS, you gain valuable visibility into the food safety performance of all your store locations AND suppliers, with features for:
- Combining food safety test results from multiple sites to obtain a complete picture of your food safety risk
- Interacting with the data set in real time with complete drill-down and drill-through functionality
- Investigating trends and outlier results to immediately take action before problems can cause shutdowns, poor audit results or recalls
As grocery stores continue transforming their offerings and face complex food safety issues, technology has become so much more integral. A cloud-based software solution that manages all data and workflows via a centralized database allows you to unlock food safety and compliance insights and eliminate points of risk, error, inefficiency and miscommunication. All of this helps protect your reputation and maintain the livelihood of your brand.
For more information about protecting your brand with a smarter approach to recall prevention and management, access your free Food Recall Prevention Kit.
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About Mike Koeris
Dr. Koeris is co-founder of Sample6/Corvium and BiotechStart.org, a non-profit in the Biotech / Lifesciences arena. Michael specializes in development and innovation within biotechnology, startups, venture capital, technology transfer, management consulting, and is an avid basketball fan and master of the pick 'n roll.
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