The deli and prepared foods department has a little bit of everything when it comes to food safety issues. Slicing, raw foods, hot and cold merchandising of prepared dishes, deep frying and grilling scratches the surface of what deli managers must keep in line.

“I’ve been in the industry for quite a while and we’ve seen a lot of progress in making the deli safer for both the food and the employee,” says Todd Clem, director of project management for Dayton, Ohio-based Globe Food Equipment Co. “Companies are doing a good job of innovating and making things easier and better for the employee and the consumer.”

Safety at the slicer

Meat and cheese slicers are typically some of the busiest pieces of equipment for the deli department. Whether it’s custom-slicing deli meat to order, stocking up on favorite cheeses for grab-and-go applications, or constructing sandwiches and wraps for the lunchtime prepared foods rush, slicers see a lot of action.

That puts their sanitation toward the top of deli food safety concerns. Today’s slicers are designed with that in mind.

“I’ve been involved in three slicer design projects over the last 16 years and one of the things we always look at is the food safety standpoint,” Clem says. “Obviously, food safety has to be king.”

One of the biggest innovations in keeping slicers safe has been the removable knife. Troy, Ohio-based Hobart first introduced the option and still carries a patent on its knife removal tool. Others also now offer the option.

Globe’s removable knife is a factory-installed option on all of its S-Series models. The knife is secured in a special tool that ensures operator protection and thorough cleaning. Both the knife and removal tool are dish machine safe.

“That just makes it so much easier to clean around the ring guard,” Clem says. “If you don’t take the knife off, it’s hard to clean between it and the ring guard. That has really helped in making it easier to clean.”

If a slicer with that option doesn’t make sense for your operation, there’s still good news on the sanitation front. Clem says that recent design has increased the space behind the knife, helping tremendously in the ability to clean the back side of the blade.

“We’re trying to eliminate as many fasteners on the machine as possible as well,” Clem says. 

But, for maximum sanitation, Clem recommends finding a slicer that can be safely disassembled and cleaned.

“Nobody is going to spend the same amount of time scrubbing on the machine as they are if it’s in a three-compartment sink,” he says.

Keeping a safe display

Once food has been sliced, prepared, cooked or fried, the importance of its safety doesn’t go away. Retailers must ensure that hot foods stay hot, cold foods stay cold and that all of the food is given the proper space to safely wait to be consumed.

“You have to pick the right type of case for the products being merchandised,” says Marjorie Proctor, marketing and design specialist for Conyers, Georgia-based Dover Food Retail, which includes HillPhoenix. “A good example of this in the deli are meal kits. Typically, meal kits are composed of raw meat products. Meat should be kept at meat temperatures to ensure a safe product. By merchandising meal kits with raw meat product in deli temperatures, this could also shorten the life of the products and affect the taste of the product by increasing the purge rate.”

Food displays should hold temperatures without fail and deli teams should regularly check and record case temperatures throughout the day.

“Any issues related to refrigerated or hot cases should be reported immediately for repair,” Proctor says. “When it comes to protecting customers from foodborne illness, one of the most effective tools is a thermometer.”

One way to help cases run safely and efficiently is observing and respecting load lines. Food merchandised outside the load line of a cold case will disrupt the air curtain of the case and cold air will spill outside the case and into the aisle, making the case work twice as hard to refrigerate, Proctor says.

She also stresses the importance of understanding how your food’s packaging reacts to temperature.

“Ensure hot food displays are holding temperatures and the right type of packaging is used to merchandise hot foods,” Proctor says. “Understand the type of packaging designed specifically for hot foods applications and don’t assume all packaging can be used in hot and cold applications.”

Frying basics

While the act of frying foods is fairly straightforward, it’s never a bad idea to remind employees of some of the risks that are easy to overlook.

For starters, make sure workers are not overcrowding the frying basket during deep-frying. Too much product in the basket can lead to undercooking, uneven cooking or overflowing of the oil. On the employee safety front, stress that employees should never leave the fryer unattended. Because of the quick nature of frying, food can blacken, burn and become a potential fire hazard if cooked only a few minutes too long.

Other simple steps to ensure safe, quality food include using a slotted spoon or tongs to take food out of the oil when using a skillet. Inadvertently using a plastic utensil when deep-frying can lead to melting in the hot oil. Make sure workers are removing the basket when testing the internal temperature of food. Doing so while it is submerged in the hot oil can lead to inaccurate temperature readings, putting consumers at risk.

Also, be sure to consider the oil’s smoke point when determining the best fit for your operation. The smoke point — when the oil begins to break down — leads to a foul odor and taste. Picking an oil with a higher smoke point might be a good idea if your deli is understaffed or highly busy.