In the wake of several E. coli outbreaks tied to romaine lettuce and countless listeria-linked recalls of everything from ice cream to fruit, grocers and food suppliers are doing everything in their power to avoid and lessen the blow of foodborne illnesses. How can companies foster a culture of food safety among their employees?
The inherent challenges
With a large number of dedicated departments in each grocery store, getting a handle on food safety best practices can be daunting. Furthermore, newer additions to supermarkets such as meal kits, prepared foods and in-store restaurants have created a growing need for specialized equipment and updated employee training.
Likewise, suppliers must deal with individual production lines, packaging and myriad other pieces of the puzzle when getting a product ready for market. New machinery, technological advances and new processes are also keeping food safety practitioners on their toes.
While companies may have written food safety plans, as well as regular training, the disconnect generally happens at the employee level and is far from intentional. Poor handwashing or food handling, as well as improper equipment cleaning, can all lead to issues. By stressing the importance of food safety and making it a vital part of the organization’s culture, companies can turn the tide on risky behaviors.
Starting at square one
In order for best practices to be successful, companies must create and foster a culture of food safety that starts with their managers and employees. “[O]ne of the most critical components of an effective food safety management system is to focus on the people aspect,” writes Garret Weigel of SmartSense by Digi. “Training is vital to ensuring that foodborne illness is kept at bay.”
Dr. Chip Manuel, North American retail food safety lead with cleaning and hygiene solution provider Diversey, believes buy-in from upper management is the way to get the ball rolling. “This creates a trickle-down effect to employees and partners such as suppliers and maintenance teams,” he writes.
Manuel recommends adding a food safety performance metric to management career development plans, and also carefully training those in leadership positions. “When managers overseeing front-line employees understand food safety, they can better train their staffers and provide constructive feedback,” he advises.
When it comes to employee food safety training, Weigel says it can be broken down into two simple steps, which include maintaining hygiene and being sure tasks are completed. “Effective food safety is more than simply monitoring perishable foods,” he writes. “Employees are the front lines of food safety and must be taught how to prevent foodborne illness.”
Tools to move forward
Resources such as Ecolab’s recently released Food Safety Culture Assessment can help food retailers figure out where their resources will be best allocated. The assessment is based on a series of questions and results include an industry benchmark score and recommendations.
“To effectively improve food safety, it is necessary to add new risk reduction techniques to the toolbox,” said Ecolab’s Adam Johnson in a press release. “The Food Safety Culture Assessment is designed to provide greater visibility into the attitudes and actions of frontline employees, managers and corporate officers, and identify areas for improvement.”
Suppliers and grocers are also beginning to use blockchain technology to improve food safety and product traceability. In fact, Gartner predicts that 20% of the world’s top grocers will be using blockchain within the next six years. Walmart will soon require its leafy greens suppliers to trace product via blockchain, while suppliers including Nestle and Unilever are also tracing food contamination using the technology.
“Grocery retailers are trialing and looking to adopt blockchain technology to provide transparency for their products,” says Gartner’s Joanne Joliet. “Additionally, understanding and pinpointing the product source quickly may be used internally, for example to identify products included in a recall.”
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