Food safety is always on the minds of retailers, and no department escapes the hyper-vigilance of store manager determined to go above and beyond to protect their consumers — and the store’s reputation.

But the meat and poultry department, perhaps, deserves even more attention. A bevy of raw products and the rise of custom processing and customer interaction has taken food safety needs to a new level.

“There’s nothing clandestine about food safety,” says Hilary Thesmar, who serves as chief food and product safety and senior vice president of food safety for the Food Marketing Institute. “It’s a practice and a commitment that food retailers celebrate and outwardly express through their brands.”

The impact of regulations, programs

Retailers have plenty of outside help when it comes to guidance in the meat and poultry department.

For example, new regulations on recordkeeping for beef-grinding in retail stores went fully into effect in 2017, says Matt Raymond, contractor, public affairs for the North American Meat Institute. Moves like this are intended to improve the traceability of products in the unlikely event of a recall.

“FSIS data fully demonstrate the importance of complete recordkeeping in tracing potentially contaminated products,” Raymond says. “Increasing awareness of and compliance with these requirements among the tens of thousands of regulated retailers will help further strengthen confidence in the safety of the products they sell, along with public health.”

FMI has an entire program dedicated to food safety training called SafeMark. Thesmar says it was developed specifically to empower associates to be food safety experts and help them abide by food safety codes.

And efforts to protect food safety at the meat and deli counter are building on the progress that is being made all the way up the supply chain, Raymond says. In particular, the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Listeria monocytogenes pilot project.

“In the Listeria pilot project, there were increases—some of them quite significant—in adoption across all categories of FSIS’s safety recommendations,” he says. “The extension of the project through 2021 will provide FSIS further insight into acceptance of the most critical recommendations, and where more progress is needed, which should lay the groundwork for continued improvement into the future.”

A culture of safety, service

It goes without saying that all food retailers must comply with all local, state and federal food safety regulations.

But as stringent as those rules may be, consumers often have even higher standards.

“Retailers meet those needs every day by providing high quality products with outstanding customer service,” Thesmar says.

The meat department is an area of the store where shoppers are more likely to have questions about what to buy and how to prepare their purchase.

“In this regard, training programs have changed to be very specific for employees to obtain the knowledge and behaviors they need to meet customers’ needs,” Thesmar says. “Well beyond the meat department, though, maintaining the confidence of customers is essential to the success of a food retail business, so when it comes to food safety, the best protection is prevention, and that’s why food safety training and certification is so important.”

Any time raw products are handled, there are specific procedures that associates follow to mitigate food safety risks for the customers and keep themselves safe. And Thesmar says many of these programs go beyond what the Food Safety Modernization Act requires.

“Food safety is so much more to food retailers than procedure — it’s their culture,” she says.

The trouble with tech

Technology is fully embraced among food safety professionals, but Thesmar says consumer acceptance can sometimes be a barrier.

For example, irradiated meat has been in commerce since the early 2000s, but consumers can find the blue tint unappealing. That said, several food retailers have found a niche market and offer it as an option in their meat cases.

“I think we’ll witness more opportunities for technologies that enhance quality control and freshness as it relates to packaging and design,” Thesmar says. “We’ll also begin to better understand how data sources, or event open data sources like blockchain, can help us better facilitate traceability efforts and illness mitigation.”