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Fresh Approaches to Food Safety Training for Grocers
by Laura Dunn Nelson
Managing risk and exposure is one of the most important responsibilities of every grocery owner or operator. One department that deserves special scrutiny because of the extent of human contact with food on a daily basis is the deli. Risks to public health are numerous due to the potential for food contamination and the spread of bacteria. Employees are prohibited from touching food with bare hands, but that does not guarantee there will be thorough hand washing when employees are juggling customer demands, experiencing equipment challenges, or both.
While managers understand the need for training employees about the genuine risks to health and safety that can result from oversights, employees do no always act according to the training they have been given or retain the information they’ve learned. That would appear to be the case based on results from a FDA study, “Trend Analysis on Report on the Occurrence of Foodborne Illness Risk Factors in Selected Institutional Foodservice, Restaurant, and Retail Food Store Facility Types.” The lengthy FDA report tracks trends from 1998 to 2008 in all the facilities listed in the title. The findings for retail groceries, particularly those with delis, hot food bars, and fresh seafood counters, are somewhat disturbing. Nearly 57 percent were out of compliance due to improper holding in terms of time and temperature, and a surprising 26 percent for what the FDA describes as “poor personal hygiene.” The figures aren’t much better in the other departments. In the meat and poultry departments, 35 percent failed to comply due to improper holding and 19 percent were found to be non-compliant for hygiene. For the seafood departments, improper holding was only slightly improved with 34 percent non-compliant for time and temperature holding and nearly 9 percent for hygiene. These figures have to be viewed as less than satisfactory and in need of improvement. Grocers who recognize the seriousness of this situation should start by looking at the one requirement where most shortcomings can be traced—the lack of effective training.
Whether the retail business is part of a grocery store chain or an independent store, training is often limited and not fully understood.
Food Safety Pitfalls
Food handling is one training discipline that deserves examination. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), improper food handling is the cause of 97 percent of food poisoning incidents. Many of these foodborne illness outbreaks have been traced to food manufacturers and processors, but that does not eliminate risk at the retail grocery level. The CDC warns that vegetables and fruits can become contaminated during storage—a point of concern to anyone selling fresh produce or deli meats. The CDC attributes other incidents to improper disinfecting of food preparation surfaces and cross contamination, all of which require training in proper handling and contamination avoidance. Another subject of obvious concern to the CDC as well as the FDA is inadequate hand-washing—an issue that is widespread.
Cross contamination in salad bars from such allergens as seafood, shellfish, and peanuts is another public health risk for grocers. “You have to train employees to be aware that they can’t have one salad close enough to contaminate another salad,” says Scott Esqueda, assistant vice president of Argo Insurance—U.S. Grocery and Retail, Portland, Ore. “They have to be trained to place the salad in another section of the case so that there is no chance of cross contamination.” The insurance executive also emphasizes the need for ongoing training in two other areas: Accurate time and temperatures for heated food and personal hygiene. “I think everybody could do more training,” Esqueda says.
Whether the retail business is part of a grocery store chain or an independent store, training is often limited and not fully understood. One reason may be because the employees are overwhelmed with responsibilities and they do not completely absorb the concepts of proper hygiene and food safety. Similarly, food handlers at a deli or meat counter may not always recognize the risk posed from touching a cell phone even though their hands may be covered. An article in the April 2010 issue of Progressive Grocer notes that a national survey of best practices in retail groceries found that a glaring reason for low performance management scores was inadequate training. “Specific comments on the survey described a lack of training for themselves and especially for management,” the article reports. It also finds a “correlation” between the low performance management scores and “how well they score in overall operations and profits.”
A study conducted by the University of Kentucky in 2004, but still relevant today, establishes a correlation between training and employee turnover in the grocery industry. “Grocery stores with lower levels of training (less than 20 hours per year) experienced higher voluntary turnover than those with higher levels of training,” the study states. It also notes a “weak but negative relationship” between voluntary turnover rates and store performance, efficiency, and safety.
The study reports average turnover rates at more than 43 percent and part-time employee turnover significantly higher at 58 percent. These turnover rates present yet another challenge for maintaining consistency of knowledge throughout the staff. Stores with high turnover rates may find training requirements “slipping through the cracks” because of some ongoing personnel changes.
Another issue to consider is the methodology used to conduct training, which many stores have not changed in more than a decade. Training may include miscellaneous paperwork in the form of sign-in sheets, spreadsheets, and the occasional PowerPoint presentation. In addition, the documentation of training, if it exists at all, may be inadequate and incomplete. As the time-consuming paperwork piles up, training organization tends to erode, particularly when it comes to proof of comprehension. Verification of knowledge is difficult to substantiate especially if a simple passing grade on an examination is considered acceptable. Training is supposed to positively influence employee behavior, but that is unlikely when there is no way of ensuring that all food safety issues associated with handling are completely understood and applied every day on the job, particularly when the training is inconsistent.
Many retail grocers, who are quite aware of these deficiencies, have turned to a modern training technology to improve their employees’ knowledge and comprehension.
Cross contamination in salad bars from such allergens as seafood, shellfish, and peanuts is another public health risk for grocers.
Training Technologies and Retail Grocers
Technology training platforms have been developed specifically for retail groceries, regardless of size. These platforms are designed to be interactive and engaging. Employees do not merely listen to a one-sided lecture; they use the platform to interact and respond to questions throughout the training session. Courses cover the gamut of food safety issues associated with everyday operations, including understanding cross contamination and how to avoid it, preventing the spread of foodborne illnesses, hygiene and hand-washing, sanitation, importance of time and temperatures, and equipment cleaning. Since retail food involves many departments with varying training needs, the platform is designed to be flexible to accommodate both single-employee and group training. Employees trained in groups can respond by using a remote control and the system gives the instructor immediate feedback on how many employees answered correctly and incorrectly. When the latter occurs, the platform and/or the instructor can make sure the concept is understood. For those stores with employees for whom English is a second language, the platforms offer multi-lingual presentations as well.
The technology reduces (if not eliminates) nearly all of the paperwork associated with previous training methods. All defensible records from every training session are electronically stored and easily accessible for instructors and management, a valuable tool not only for proving comprehension of food handling safety but also for future employee performance reviews. Technology platforms save time previously lost due to searches, reviews, and cross referencing of extensive paperwork.
Why is this so important? Consider the amount of paperwork necessary to document training and comprehension for each individual employee without training technology. For example, a store with 50 employees, each having undergone five training sessions, would have to correlate a minimum of 250 separate pieces of paper—a time consuming, labor-intensive process that falls far short of efficiency. Today’s technology eliminates all of the paperwork and time to process it through instantaneous storage and all records are easily accessible. Most important, the data confirms actual comprehension of all key learning objectives.
The value of technology as a food safety training tool has not been lost on Topco Associates. This major grocery aggregator with 52 member-owners located in Elk Grove Village, Ill., opted to improve its employee training for all of its members. “Some of our members have relied heavily on verbalized one-on-one training and you can’t expect too much from that,” says Howard Popoola, Topco vice president of quality assurance. “There has to be standardization of training and the platform allows us to do that.”
According to Popoola, the training technology platform rectifies a previous problem with grocery employee training—information overload. “The employee used to be required to watch video after video and it was counterproductive,” Popoola says.
The Topco executive reports that response to the platform from supervisors and employees is overwhelmingly positive. “It’s very specific to what we do and our members who have used it, love it,” he says. “They especially like the fact that all their current training courses can be used within the platform, which preserves the investment they have made over many years.”
Another factor that corroborates the importance of thorough training and validation of comprehension is risk. The cost of risk to retailers nationwide is $21 billion according to a December 2011 article in Risk Management. It identifies liability as the second highest operational expense. Only workers compensation is higher. While these figures apply to all retail operations, the message they convey is clear. Grocers should consider food safety training every bit as important as the other steps they take to alleviate risks and the litigation that is bound to follow if they don’t. “You should factor what the costs would be if a foodborne illness would be traced to your store,” Topco’s Popoola says.
Most retail grocers constantly fight the battle of low margins, which is all the more reason to consider the positive impact that training technology can have on cost reduction as well as food safety. Through an interactive training module, workers can learn, for instance, how to reject produce that doesn’t meet standards and greatly reduce the potential for waste, spoilage, and the costs associated with both. Studies have shown operations that engage their employees also lessen the amount and frequency of turnover, which is why there is so much emphasis on the interactive component of training. It turns the employees into active participants rather than disengaged and bored listeners who probably will neither retain nor apply the information.
Store owners and managers should not assume that training has been successfully completed because an employee has signed an attendance document or barely passed a test. Training has to be presented, repeated, and updated so that employees can develop a sense of commitment to recognize and avoid cross contamination, maintain cleanliness of hands and equipment, and promote a safe workplace.
Dunn Nelson, director of industry relations for Alchemy Systems, LP, has more than 25 years’ experience in food safety and quality control programs for foodservice and retail operations. She can be reached at email@example.com.