Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Hagerstown firm helps people be savvy about food safety

After a lifetime in the food service industry, Francine Shaw still says there's nothing better "than a Friday evening rush that goes well."

"(But) if it's not done well and it's not done right, people can get sick and die," she said. "And that's why we're here."

Shaw is president of Savvy Food Safety Inc., which recently moved from McConnellsburg, Pa., into new quarters in the Mulberry Lofts, 22 N. Mulberry St. in Hagerstown. The company employs four people and several independent contractors, offering training, inspections, curriculum development, crisis management and related services.

"We train everybody from food handlers to CEOs," Shaw said.

The new space includes offices, a conference room, and a training facility. A testing center is being developed.

"It’s been an exciting year of positive changes for our organization. First, we’ve rebranded our former company, Food Safety Training Solutions, to become Savvy Food Safety Inc., because we’re much more than just a training company. We’re food safety subject matter experts, offering a robust roster of services, including training, crisis management, curriculum development, HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plans, inspections and more,” Shaw said in a news release. "We also speak globally about food safety issues and regularly contribute content and expertise to numerous media outlets."

The company also creates food safety videos for its clients. It also works to help companies update their food safety protocols, including moving away from the pencil-and-paper methods to software systems.

Shaw said her interest in the subject comes naturally. Her grandparents owned a general store, and her parents had a grocery for a time.

"When I was 15 years old, I started out as a fry girl in a fast-food restaurant," she recalled.

She spent a couple of decades with that company and its successor, working her way up through the ranks. She found she enjoyed the training aspect of the industry. Eventually, she got into training full time. Then she started her own company.

Shaw has been featured as a food safety expert in media outlets that range from the Dr. Oz Show to Food Management Magazine, according to the news release. The Savvy Food Safety team has more than 100 combined years of industry experience in restaurants, casinos and convenience stores. They’ve helped numerous clients — including McDonald’s, Subway, Marriott, Domino’s, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America, Dairy Queen and Omni Hotel and Resorts — prevent foodborne illnesses.

Shaw said it's a big problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 will die.

"The numbers are staggering. They're 100 percent preventable," she said.

Shaw says there's a monetary cost, too — some $55.5 billion a year in everything from recalls to legal fees.

"It can happen to anybody," she said. "All it takes is one mistake."

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Everything but the Kitchen Sink

By Francine L. Shaw |  Published May 1, 2018, on

Foodservice professionals work long, arduous days in the kitchen. While it’s important that their environment is attractive, it’s even more critical that it’s safe and efficient. Never choose a gorgeous kitchen design at the expense of safety and efficiency. Commercial kitchens must utilize sturdy, easy-to-clean materials, have a layout that minimizes cross-contamination risks and include designated equipment and prep areas for guests with food allergies.

I recently met a restaurant owner that invested significant money redesigning his restaurant without considering safety issues. His new kitchen didn’t meet codes. Unfortunately, he had to demolish the kitchen and rebuild. This was an additional, and significant, expense. It also delayed the restaurant’s reopening by several months.
Smart Choices

I love high-gloss marble and porcelain floor tile. It’s beautiful, but it’s a potential disaster in a commercial kitchen. Don’t choose materials that are dangerous, such as slippery floor tile, or anything that is hard to keep clean, might chip or break easily, or won’t withstand heavy use. Chips, cracks, and breaks in tile or other materials lead to bacteria growth and health code violations. Use easy-to-clean stainless steel backsplashes behind high-heat appliances, anti-microbial countertop materials, nonslip flooring materials, fiberglass reinforced panels for walls, and safe lighting, which means without exposed lightbulbs.

It’s thrilling to pick out new equipment for a restaurant, but keep in mind who will be operating it. Be certain your kitchen staff has the appropriate skills to manage the equipment. If the kitchen staff can’t operate the equipment appropriately and safely, it’s useless — and dangerous.

Refrigeration equipment is incredibly important. Decide on the appropriate amount of space for the anticipated volume, then add extra space in case the restaurant exceeds expectations. There was a time when I managed a restaurant that we had to erect a custom-built unit in the parking lot for additional dry storage and a walk-in cooler because sales were double the original projection. While I was thrilled with the sales, the stock rotation and inventory were a nightmare.

You’ve heard the phrase “Everything but the kitchen sink.” While on a consultation project, I visited a new build where they actually forgot the kitchen sink. Of course, it’s much easier to include a sink — or any equipment — during the design phase than it is to add it later. They ended up installing a sink right beside the dough mixer, which was a horrible — and unsafe — location. Sinks shouldn’t be next to equipment like that dough mixer, where dirty dishwater could contaminate the food. Instead, locate dishwashing areas near the kitchen entrance to streamline dropping off dirty dishes.

Holding areas for hot and cold food items that are ready for serving are incredibly important and frequently miscalculated. This can cause backups in the kitchen, or worse, prevent food from being held at the proper temperature, which could cause a foodborne illness outbreak.

It’s critical to consider function, efficiency, and safety when designing commercial kitchens to maximize guests’ health and reduce — or even better, eliminate — risks.

The Tremendous Cost of Foodborne Illnesses, and What to Do About it

The cost of a single foodborne illness outbreak at a fast-casual establishment could cost between $6,330 to $2.1 million.

By Francine L. Shaw  |  Published June 2018

Each year, 48 million Americans become sick from foodborne illness.

America’s food industry has a $55.5 billion food safety problem. This includes foodborne illnesses at restaurants, hotels, convenience stores, and other food service organizations, as well as food recalls and other food safety issues.

Clearly, restaurants should be concerned about sickening—or even killing—customers because of a foodborne illness and should take every precaution to reduce that risk. But foodborne illnesses are also expensive and damaging for businesses.

A foodborne illness incident can cost restaurants significant money—including decreased revenues, hefty legal fees, potential lawsuits, diminished sales (and loyalty) from worried guests, and a damaged reputation that could permanently shut their doors. In fact, foodborne illnesses cost $55.5 billion per year in medical treatment, lost productivity, and illness-related mortality in the U.S, according to a study by Ohio State University professor Robert Scharff.

The cost of a single foodborne illness outbreak at a fast-casual establishment could cost between $6,330 to $2.1 million, depending on the severity of the outbreak, the amount of lawsuits, fines and legal fees, as well as the number of employees and guests impacted by the incident, according to a new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Casual-dining restaurants had a cost range of $8,030 to $2.2 million, and fine-dining restaurants could experience costs between $8,273 and $2.6 million per incident, according to the study.

"Our study shows that a single foodborne illness outbreak can incur substantial costs, enough to compose a large portion of a restaurant's annual profits," the team wrote in the study. "Many of these costs outweigh the costs of various infection prevention and control measures that are available to restaurants."

Each year, 48 million Americans become sick from foodborne illness, per the Centers for Disease Control. Reducing foodborne illness by just 1 percent would keep approximately 500,000 people from getting sick each year in the US. Reducing foodborne illness by 10 percent would prevent five million from getting sick.

Investing in food safety is one of the smartest things that restaurants (and other food service organizations) can do. The expense, time and energy necessary to implement—or elevate—your food safety protocols won’t be overwhelming, and it’s crucial to your business success.

Reduce safety risks—and the tremendous costs associated with foodborne illness incidents and outbreaks—by taking the following steps:

Make food safety part of your company’s culture. Everyone—on every shift—must be trained in proper food safety protocols.

Invest in the latest technologies. Digital tools are elevating the way many restaurants do business. Not only do these technological tools make food safer, but they can also save restaurants tremendous money each year by preventing food waste and reducing foodborne illness risks.

Ditch the paper. Technological solutions enhance food safety protocols and make it faster, more accurate, and more efficient to conduct inventory, auditing, training and keep food safe. Restaurants that adopt and embrace digital tools (versus using pen and paper systems) can help boost the health and safety of their establishments.

Reduce human error. While human error can never be completely eliminated, advancements in technology help minimize the risks. Sensors ensure foods are being held at proper temperatures. Centralized, continuous refrigeration monitoring systems signal when temperatures in restaurants’ coolers or freezers rise above safe holding temperatures, eliminating the need to throw away entire coolers or freezers of food due to improperly working units. As a result, restaurants can save thousands of dollars (or more) in lost product and potentially save lives.

Elevate your data collection. Innovative digital tools can now be used for restaurants’ internal auditing systems, which is a more efficient, cost-effective and accurate solution versus the pen and paper methods that are often used in the foodservice industry. Using pen and paper to audit restaurants often result in increased labor, time, errors and expenses. Hard copy records can be difficult to organize and access—especially in the midst of a frightening food safety outbreak—and it’s extremely difficult to integrate and analyze the data. Digital tools provide more efficient, cost-effective internal auditing systems, with records that are easy to access and analyze.

Become mobile. A major percentage of restaurant employees are millennials (or younger), and they live on their phones. If you’re trying to emphasize the importance of food safety protocols but then provide employees with antiquated pencil and paper record-keeping systems, there’s a tremendous disconnect. Instead, implement digital systems that can be tracked on cell phones and tablets. Use downloadable apps to enhance the way employees conduct inspections, keep temperature logs, conduct training, manage QA forms, access food code information, and more. This way, critical food safety information can be (literally) at employees’ fingertips.

Improve operational efficiencies. By doing so, you’ll improve your restaurant’s bottom line. Eliminating pen and paper line checks can save $250-600 per year per restaurant, smart sensors that prevent food spoilage can save $1,100 per episode, and reducing food and labor costs can save $4,700 per year per restaurant, according to a recent CoInspect survey. Digital tools can help with brand protection and quality assurance concerns by optimizing and improving line checks, shift logs, inspections, auditing, and other reporting.

Reduce pencil whipping. There’s a widespread “pencil whipping” problem in the foodservice industry, where employees using paper record systems falsify records or “cheat” on their processes. As much as food service leadership wants to deny that “pencil whipping” happens in their organizations, it’s (unfortunately) a fairly common practice in restaurants, hotels, convenience stores, and other industry businesses. Pencil whipping can result in increased food safety risks, food code violations, and other (potentially costly) issues. Digital tools help reduce or eliminate “pencil whipping” through real-time data collection, and visual records using photos and videos.

While technology has previously been considered to be a luxury, today, digital tools are affordable, widespread and accessible. Technology that can help minimize labor, reduce (or eliminate) foodborne illness risks, and minimize food waste is not an expense, it’s an important investment. Innovative digital systems and records are fundamental to keeping foods, consumers, and restaurants healthy and safe.

Restaurants must prioritize food safety, utilizing the most efficient and effective tools to protect the health of their guests, employees, and businesses. Technology streamlines operations improve safety protocols, reduce errors, integrates data—and so much more, and the benefits are significant. When restaurant owners tell me, “I can’t afford the investment,” my response is always, “You can’t afford not to.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Economics of Food Safety

By Francine L. Shaw

America’s food industry has a $55.5 billion safety problem annually, as recently reported by Fortune Magazine. This includes foodborne illnesses at convenience stores and restaurants, food recalls and other food safety issues.

The price can be steep. A 2015 study by Robert Scharff, an associate professor at Ohio State University, estimated that foodborne illnesses cost more than $55.5 billion per year in medical treatment, lost productivity and illness in the U.S.
Each year 48 million Americans become sick from foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Therefore, investing in food safety is one of the smartest things c-stores can do. The expense, time and energy necessary to implement— or elevate—your food safety protocols won’t be overwhelming, and it’s crucial to your business success.
Last May, nacho cheese sold at a California convenience store was linked to a botulism outbreak that sickened 10 people and killed one. The convenience store temporarily lost its food and drink permit—resulting in lost revenue—amid the ensuing investigation.
Earlier this year, approximately 2,000 7-Eleven customers in West Jordan, Utah were exposed to hepatitis A, due to an infected 7-Eleven employee who had gone to work and handled the c-store’s food while sick.
Having a foodborne illness incident or outbreak can result in decreased revenues, hefty legal fees, potential lawsuits, diminished sales (and loyalty) from guests afraid to visit the (possibly contaminated) store, and a damaged reputation that could permanently shut your doors.
Food safety should be part of your company’s culture. Everyone—on every shift— should be trained in proper food safety protocols.
TECHNOLOGY CAN HELPNew technological solutions can now enhance food safety protocols and make it faster, more accurate and more efficient to conduct inventory, auditing, and training.
Sensors ensure foods are being held at proper temperatures. Centralized, continuous refrigeration monitoring systems signal when temperatures in the store’s coolers or freezers rise above safe holding temperatures, eliminating the need to throw away entire coolers or freezers of food due to improperly working units.
Innovative digital tools can now be used for c-stores’ internal auditing systems, which is a more efficient, cost-effective and accurate solution versus the pen and paper methods often used in the foodservice industry.
Many companies now provide downloadable apps that enhance the way foodservice employees conduct inspections, keep temperature logs, conduct training, manage QA forms, access food code information and more. Now, critical food safety data can be at employees’ fingertips.
Operational efficiencies have been proven to improve stores’ bottom line. Eliminating pen and paper line checks can save $250-$600 per year per store, smart sensors that prevent food spoilage can save $1,100 per episode, and reducing food and labor costs can save $4,700 per year per store, according to a recent CoInspect survey. Further, CoInspect experts said the ROI on in-store technical solutions can be as high as $10,000-$15,000 per year for c-stores with foodservice capabilities. Digital tools can help with brand protection and quality assurance concerns by optimizing and improving line checks, shift logs, inspections, auditing and other reporting.
There’s a widespread “pencil whipping” problem in the foodservice industry, where employees using paper record systems falsify records or “cheat” on their processes, which digital tools eliminate through real-time data collection, and visual records using photos and videos.
Technology that can help minimize labor, reduce (or eliminate) foodborne illness risks and minimize food waste is not an expense, it’s an important investment.
Often, c-store owner/operators will tell me, “I can’t afford to make the investment.” My response is always, “You can’t afford not to.”
Francine Shaw is president of Savvy Food Safety Inc. and has been featured as a food safety expert in numerous media outlets, including the Dr. Oz Show, the Huffington Post, iHeartRadio, Food Safety News and Food Management Magazine.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Foodborne Illnesses and Recalls on the Rise

By Francine L. Shaw
The last word a manufacturer wants to hear is “recall”. During 2017, recalls involved everything from salad mix contaminated with a dead bat to hash browns infused with shredded golf balls.
Not all recalls are created equal. Both the USDA and the FDA have three classifications of recalls to indicate the relative degree of health hazard presented by the product being recalled:
  • Class I: A Class I recall is the most serious classification, involving a health hazard situation in which there is a reasonable probability that eating the food will cause health problems or death.
  • Class II: A Class II recall involves a potential health hazard situation in which there is a remote probability of adverse health consequences from eating the food.
  • Class III: A Class III recall involves a situation in which eating the food will not cause adverse health consequences.
During 2017, there were 456 recalls recorded in the United States. The number one reason for those recalls was undeclared allergens.
Foodborne illnesses continue to be widespread, as well. In 2017, we saw Robin Hood flour contaminated with E.coli, Soygo yogurt with Listeria, tomatoes, cantaloupe, and ground turkey tainted with Salmonella, and even shredded coconut was responsible for causing a Salmonella outbreak in the United States and Canada. Foodborne illness outbreaks can happen at restaurants, corporate events, private parties, schools and cruise ships—anywhere and everywhere food is served.
Recalls and foodborne illnesses are 100% preventable. Incidents occur because of human error, and all it takes is one weak link to cause serious—and potentially fatal—problems. That’s it. One weak link can cause the traumatic deaths and/or illnesses of customers, and cost your company billions of dollars, loss of sales, plummeting stocks, negative media coverage and a severely damaged reputation.
When there’s a recall or a foodborne illness, products must be destroyed, which is lost revenue for manufacturers, retailers, restaurants, etc. Finding the source of the contamination can be a massive undertaking. The manufacturer may need to close all of their plants for cleaning until the source is identified, which adds up to a tremendous financial burden, and also requires significant time and effort. Class 1 recalls can cost hundreds of millions of dollars or more, to identify the source of contamination, recall products, sanitize facilities, and keep consumers safe.
It takes years for companies to establish a solid reputation, and food recalls and foodborne illness outbreaks can obliterate a brand’s reputation overnight. Consumers lose confidence much faster than they gain it, and bad news travels fast (especially in this time of social media where news spreads instantly and widely). And on top of that, there may be litigation as a result of the recall, incident or outbreak, which will result in attorney fees and potential settlements that could be very significant. If the risk of massive expense and bankruptcy isn’t enough, for the past few years, the U.S. District of Justice has been issuing fines and prison terms to company leaders involved in foodborne illnesses outbreaks and food recalls.
The government, media and general public are holding companies (and their leadership) accountable now, so you’d think that recalls and foodborne illness incidents would be on the decline but, unfortunately, that’s not the case. And with advancements in technology, why are we still having so many issues surrounding the safety of our food?
Many media outlets report that foodborne illnesses have been rising considerably in the past few years. However, according to the CDC, a study showed that the six most common foodborne illnesses have actually declined in frequency by 25% over the last two decades. Having said that, though, the severity of foodborne illness outbreaks seems to be increasing, and the number of outbreaks connected to produce has risen, as well. Some experts believe the increases may be due to better reporting processes rather than an actual increase in the number of foodborne illnesses.
There are various theories as to why foodborne illnesses may be getting worse. Some government agencies indicate it has to do with farming policies. The CDC disagrees. More widely accepted beliefs are the increase in popularity of organic produce—grown with manure rather than chemical fertilizer—which can transfer bacteria to the produce. Additionally, there’s debate that the use of antibiotics can cause bacteria that causes foodborne illnesses to become resistant.
Recalls may occur for a variety of reasons. Products may be pushed beyond their shelf life by the manufacturer, or maybe the design and development around the product was insufficient (equipment, building, etc.). Is the manufacturing facility designed in a manner that can prevent contamination—structurally and hygienically? Maybe the production quality control checks failed. Did the manufacturer conduct an adequate food safety risk assessment prior to launching the new product? Profit margins are often thin—did financial incentives prevent the company from implementing a thorough food safety program?
Getting back to the basics of food safety would reduce recalls and foodborne illnesses significantly. Manufacturers must be certain about food safety as well as the integrity of the ingredients they use. They need to be honest with themselves and understand the risks of the ingredients, processes and finished products that they are handling.
Human error is a given. It’s the corporation’s responsibility to minimize the risk. Implement ongoing food safety education and training for all employees, explaining the proper food safety protocols and processes. Develop internal auditing systems, using innovative digital tools. Get rid of the pen and paper forms, where it’s more likely for errors to occur and for pencil whipping to happen. Digital solutions provide more effective internal auditing, meticulousness in corrective action systems including root cause analysis, allergen management, and controls relating to packing product into the correct packaging format—all fundamental to keeping foods, consumers and businesses healthy and safe.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Touchy Feely Restaurant Screens Covered with Creepy Crawlies

Francine L. Shaw, Contributor
Restaurants are increasingly moving from clipboards and pens to digital technology. And they should. These digital tools streamline and simplify multiple processes – from taking customers’ orders to facilitating inspections.
But now, patrons and staff are likely to touch – and share – multiple screens. Whether your host is sending a text about an open table or a server is completing a sale, your team must commit to consistent, thorough “clean screen” procedures.
Preventative measures, like wearing and changing single-use gloves regularly, are among best practices, but they’re only the beginning.  Digital-friendly sanitizing wipes should be easily accessible and regularly used. Sanitation schedules should be established for shared screens – similar to schedules for cleaning other equipment. Whatever the strategy, a regular sanitizing regimen is essential for a healthy, code-abiding establishment.
Washing hands saves lives.  Many hands are sharing tools, devices, surfaces, and germs in restaurants, and germs can spread fast through contact with these items.
Increasingly, restaurants and other foodservice organizations are relying on mobile technologies, such as POS systems, tablet menus, and remote card payment machines. Mobile devices are also being used to manage food prep and safety in accordance with inspection regulations.
While these devices offer multiple benefits – increased efficiency, accuracy, etc. – they may also carry some risk. Think about it: everyone involved in the experience of dining out runs the risk of sharing screens and, therefore, sharing germs. Screens constantly get shared among employees – and customers – during shifts.
How dirty do screens get? Scientists have found that the average cell phone is 10 times dirtier than a toilet seat. Major pathogens, like Streptococcus, MRSA, and E. Coli have routinely been found on electronic screens. Passing these dirty devices around spreads the germs and bacteria to hands – and then, potentially, to other surfaces.
“Research says your phone is covered in germs: 25,107 bacteria per square inch to be exact. That makes your cell phone one of the filthiest objects you touch,” explained Francine L. Shaw, food safety expert and president of Savvy Food Safety Inc.
“With advances in technology, cell phones are consistently being utilized to execute food safety strategies throughout the foodservice industry. This is especially true for the leaders in the industry that have implemented this advanced technology to enhance their company’s food safety culture.”
So, how can restaurants successfully keep its screens germ-free? Here are three simple steps every restaurant should consider.
Step 1: Clean everything“Technology is the way of the future. So how do you keep your phone clean? First and foremost, wash your hands,” Shaw explained. “Then clean and disinfect your cell phone by using a combination of 60 percent water and 40 percent rubbing alcohol. Mix the ingredients together, then dip a soft cloth – don’t use a paper towel, it may scratch the screen – in the solution and wipe the damp cloth gently across your phone.”
“Apple warns against using anything other than a soft cloth on your screen, but, let’s face it, a soft cloth isn’t getting rid of any germs,” Shaw added. “Personally, I love technology – there are many UV lights on the market that will destroy surface bacteria. Regardless of the method you choose, clean your phone frequently. And, keep it out of the restroom!”
We tell food service employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom and, hopefully, they all comply. But think about the hundreds of patrons visiting a restaurant daily. And what about employees coming on-shift to work while, inevitably, carrying their germy phones?  If they touch surfaces in the restaurant before washing their hands, they can transfer germs to these items.
In family restaurants, children tend to touch everything in sight.  I’ve seen toddlers who picked their nose or licked their fingers and then touched the table, doorknob, etc.  And now that screens are more common in restaurants – used for everything from reviewing online menus to paying bills via a shared tablet – it’s critical that every screen in your establishment gets regularly (and properly) disinfected.
The solution: identify every device that has a screen and wipe it down. A tried-and-true product, like Windex Electronic Wipes, can work wonders for getting germs off a variety of electronic screens. It’s an all-purpose product that every restaurant should have on hand and insist that employees use regularly and often.
Though the food code no longer allows personal cell phones in kitchens, staff often use them before shifts and during breaks. Encourage employees to wipe their personal phones to prevent contamination.  Additionally, require them to wash their hands after using their mobile devices and before touching food, surfaces and/or equipment.
Step 2: Make a scheduleYour restaurant employees schedule their shifts and tickets. Tables get wiped down before changing patrons. But is there currently a schedule in your restaurant for when a POS system gets disinfected?  If not, there should be.
No one should have to wonder when a screen was last wiped down. A simple checklist will do. Cleaning products should be available in the main dining areas. If your restaurant isn’t looking to take up too much space with a box of screen wipes, consider a Microfiber Teraglove. It’s small, compact, and can fit anywhere.
Step 3: Sanitize screensRestaurants are busy places. Not every job gets done according to schedule especially during hectic shifts. But, just like the kitchen and washing staff make sure the prep areas and cutlery are sanitized, the same must be done for all digital screens in your restaurant.
At the end of each shift, have the staff focus more intentionally, and more thoroughly, on cleaning all of the restaurant’s mobile devices. A heavy-duty product with a reputation for being effective, like Tech Armor, provides a full kit of microfiber wipes and cleaning solution. By disinfecting the surface of each screen, you’ll significantly limit the potential for germs and the associated risk of illnesses.
Bottom lineRestaurant leadership requires its employees to wash their hands after using the restrooms.  Teams must follow specific protocols around cleaning dishes, utensils and kitchen equipment. Surfaces should be regularly disinfected, and restrooms scrubbed on schedule.
Another best practice would be to wipe down all shared surfaces and not just screens. For servers, tables and counters are more obvious, but what about menus, napkin holders, and condiment dispensers. A great opening practice is to wipe down these commonly touched components of the restaurant experience.
If you’re not regularly cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting your screens, you’re putting your staff and guests at an increased risk of spreading germs and contracting some pretty miserable illnesses. Create specific protocols around cleaning your screens to increase the health and safety of your facility, employees, and guests.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Putting Safety First in Foodservice

Francine L. Shaw, Contributor  |   Convenience Store News

NATIONAL REPORT — Fifteen years ago, La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip Inc. had just begun to transform its foodservice offering from a roller grill-based program to a full-fledged initiative, which would eventually be honored as Convenience Store News' Foodservice Innovator of the Year in 2015. From the onset, Kwik Trip CEO Don Zietlow pinpointed a potential occurrence that could have devastating effects on the convenience store chain: a foodborne illness.

That early foresight led Kwik Trip to build a culture of food safety that incorporates training at all levels of the organization — something every convenience store that offers prepared food should imitate, according to industry experts. When it comes from the top, safety is more likely to be a key component and not an afterthought.

"When your CEO says this is an issue that could destroy our company, it puts it high on people's radar that we need to follow food safety principles and food safety programs," said Marty Putz, director of food safety and quality assurance for Kwik Trip, operator of 600-plus stores.

To instill food safety knowledge at all levels, Kwik Trip re-examined how it handles training and staff promotion. All employees receive computer-based training, and those who are ready to move up the management ladder get the opportunity for hands-on development. Instead of moving directly up to shift leader, they are moved into the role of foodservice leader, in which they take responsibility for the kitchen. Experience with food and food safety is a fundamental part of the leadership journey at Kwik Trip, not an alternative path.

Individuals who pursue multi-store leadership roles, such as district roles, get even more food safety training on a broader level. Through a combination of classroom study and hands-on training, future leaders learn to audit stores from a safety perspective, and they go through ServSafe food safety training and certification.

The result is a cadre of leadership with extensive food safety knowledge, according to Putz.

While the training needs of small operators and single stores in the convenience store industry may not need to be as complex as Kwik Trip, size doesn't make a difference in a retailer's ability to build a safe, trustworthy foodservice program.

"It’s not necessary to be a large corporation or have a multitude of financial resources to create a food safety culture," said Francine Shaw, president of Food Safety Training Solutions Inc. "It begins with a desire to serve safe food."

Shaw recommends that c-stores with more limited resources prioritize creating a personal hygiene standard for employees and implementing a pest management program. They should also develop standard operating procedures for purchasing, receiving, storing, cooking, cooling, reheating, holding and serving food; cleaning and sanitizing equipment; and cleaning the facility's interior and exterior.

C-store retailers of all sizes should also be mindful of the fact that in 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began shifting its food safety focus from reaction to prevention, holding retailers accountable for compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

"The FSMA calls for food retailers to establish preventive control systems modeled after HACCP [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points] guidelines to help prevent foodborne illnesses,” explained Jordan Anderson of ParTech Inc., a provider of restaurant and retail hardware, software and services. “It also mandates that the FDA has access to at least two years of documentation showing adherence to this new protocol. If you are a food retailer and the FDA comes knocking at your door, what do you have to show them?"

One of the most impactful ways of achieving food safety is also one of the simplest: Employees must be diligent about washing their hands.

"One of the most common food safety-related issues is personal hygiene. Don’t misunderstand me; some organizations do a fantastic job of training their team members. Others just don’t seem to understand the importance. Personal hygiene is so very basic, yet so very essential," Shaw said.

She recommends implementing a double handwashing policy. "Wash once in the restroom and again when returning to the workstation. After all, employees are touching the doorknobs that everyone prior to them touched and who may not have washed their hands," she pointed out. "Did you know the average door handle has about 360 types of bacteria on it?"

On the opposite end of the complexity spectrum, advances in technology are making it easier to avoid safety lapses — or to identify them once they occur. Wireless technology now enables continuous monitoring of coolers, freezers, and heating units. Digital records make it easier to access and organize crucial food safety information. There are also solutions that cater to the changing needs of foodservice operators.

“While some retailers prefer pen and paper records because that's what they're comfortable with, industry experts warn that this method has major drawbacks, such as increased risk of personal error and inefficiency of data that can't be searched or easily manipulated.”

"Paper records are easy to use (though sometimes they are difficult to locate in emergencies) and change is a process — it takes time," Shaw said. "However, major industries, including c-stores, should embrace technology to elevate the way they track inventory, manage machines, record and organize data, increase efficiency, save costs, and even save lives."

Even after investing in the best safety protocols and the most thorough training, it's possible a retailer will still face a safety incident, such as exposure to a foodborne illness that can be traced back to their store. How they respond could make or break consumers' continued trust in the brand.

The most effective response involves appropriate public messaging, as well as taking the proper steps to determine how the incident happened and how it can be avoided in the future.

Shaw recommends creating honest, authentic and apologetic messaging that describes the situation and explains a solutions-focused plan for moving forward. It is in the retailer's best interest to be straightforward with the media in identifying what happened and where there was a breakdown in safety, whether it happened on the vendor side or at the store, she said.

"It’s important that someone in a position of authority monitors social media and responds to negative and/or erroneous comments. Don’t get defensive and don’t get sucked into toxic, negative message spirals," Shaw advised. "Stay on message, remain positive, and explain how the company is working to fix the situation."

Meanwhile, the retailer should re-train employees on safety protocols, change vendors if necessary and, above all, stay calm. Once the crisis has passed, it's time to discuss what went wrong, how it could have been prevented, and how it can be prevented in the future.

Kwik Trip’s Putz encourages working with regulatory authorities that are responsible for public safety, as their concerns go hand-in-hand. On a store level, Kwik Trip requires employees to report any symptoms they exhibit. This information is entered into an electronic log.

"It is still self-reporting, but it's a way to exclude [employees] and get them out of the kitchen and away from food when they're high-risk," Putz said.

Kwik Trip views food safety as an ongoing activity with a continual improvement process. The retailer is always asking: What can we improve on next? What can we get better at?