Phil lempart
Phil Lempart speaking on food safety at an IDDBA presentation in Atlanta.

Supermarket Guru Phil Lempert talked about the high stakes of food safety in his IDDBA presentation. “Consumers wake up every morning and want to know more about their food. And dairy-deli-bakery has become the most important department of the supermarket.”

The produce department used to be the supermarket’s top driver for bringing shoppers into their stores, but prepared foods have changed all that. Consumers want foods to go, including flavorful bakery, deli and cheese items, from their favorite supermarkets. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

“If you screw up on foodservice, you’re out of business,” Lempert warns. Supermarket delis, especially, need to make sure store employees are washing hands in view of customers and wearing sanitary gloves while preparing foods.

New IDDBA research reveals 10 physical elements that inspire the most confidence in food safety among dairy-deli-bakery shoppers. These elements are clean floors, scales and slicers that look clean, thermometers on showcases/coolers, bright overhead lights, bright showcase lights, prepared food stations with sneezing guards, food temperature logs that shoppers could see, refrigerated cases that hold pre-sliced meats, cheeses and salad items, refrigerated cases that hold pick-up orders, and staffed demonstration/sampling tables.

“Physical appearance is critical to this overall department,” Lempert says. “Consumers don’t like take-you-own samples. They’re afraid of someone else touching the food. There’s a time for sampling and a way to do sampling right.”

Lempert cautions that food safety matters to shoppers “every single moment” that your store is open and closed. Dairy-deli-bakery-foodservice needs to be the leader in food safety, he urges. “It is single most important department of the store. If we start leading, store sales will go up, and new shoppers will be attracted to your stores.”

Food safety attorney Shawn Stevens painted a serious picture of the food safety landscape in America, given the recent Blue Bell listeria outbreak in which 10 people were infected and three died. Last year alone in the United States, there were 500 recalls of USDA and FDA related products. Hundreds died.

“When things go wrong, the results can be catastrophic,” Stevens says. “Risk is everywhere when it comes to food. We’re really trying to avoid the deadliest batch.”

Listeria monocytogenes can grow on meat and cheese items that are sold in retail deli establishments. Therefore it is important for retail establishments to understand how to best limit the risk of listeria in retail cases where there are products with exposure during handling and storage. To help minimize the public health burden of listeriosis, USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Food and Drug Administration in 2013 conducted a major study to better understand the risk of foodborne illness associated with eating certain foods prepared in retail delis and developed recommendations for changes in current practices that may improve safety. The study involved 4,500 samples taken at 30 stores in three states.

The study found that 4.5 percent of food contact surfaces tested positive for listeria, according to Stevens, and 14.2 percent of non-food contact surfaces showed positive. “This is a bacteria that will kill,” he warns. “Once microorganisms enter the deli, they can spread quickly. Microorganisms want to survive, as well. It’s our job to make sure they don’t.And when lawyers get involved, the costs get even higher.”

Stevens says that such cases happen more often than people think (260 deaths attributed to listeria every year in the US), and outbreaks can happen in retail stores and at the processor level. “It’s critical to know your suppliers,” he adds. “If we wouldn’t buy a used car over the phone, we would we do it for food?”

Stevens cited three steps to achieving greater success in preventing foodborne illness outbreaks: compassion, commitment and communication.

“Make sure to put resources behind it,” he says. “That’s when we start saving lives, and we stop hearing about food safety illnesses because they never happened.”