The produce department has it all when it comes to food safety risks — distribution, suppliers, consumers handling the product, fresh-cut and pre-packaged issues, temperature control, and much more.
It’s a subject big enough that the Food Marketing Institute published a comprehensive Produce Safety Best Practices Guide for Retailers in 2014. And while it’s an important tool to which many in the industry still refer, it’s never a bad idea to get fresh insight.
Keeping an eye on supply
While retailers can have a direct hand in the safety of their produce once it gets into their hands, everything before that is much more ou to the control.
“Retailers should be broadly aware of the details of their supplier’s overall produce safety systems under industry standards or certification bodies, as well as compliance with whichever parts of the Food Safety Modernization Act rules apply to their operation,” says Dr. Trevor Suslow, vice president of food safety for the Newark, Delaware-based Produce Marketing Association.
Or — as Dave Corsi, vice president of produce and floral for Rochester, New York-based Wegmans Food Markets says — trust by verify.
“Audits are a good first step, but face-to-face visits are important,” he says. “We can’t always see the full picture from an audit. We need to be sure suppliers have a good understanding of where they fall under the new FSMA regulations.”
Does the supplier, for example, fall under the Produce Rule or the Preventative Controls Rule? That distinction can have an impact on what they are required to do or record.
“Relationships are very important to us and we strive to partner with suppliers who exhibit same dedication to a food safety culture as we do,” Corsi says.
April Ward, marketing communications director for the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in Sacrament, California, reiterates that it is important to buy from produce companies who are taking food safety precautions that start on the farm and continue through harvest.
“One simple way for grocery stores, restaurants and distributors who sell leafy greens to provide assurance that lettuce and leafy greens they sell are farmed and harvested using science-based food safety practices is to require that suppliers are LGMA certified,” she says.
LGMA members are audited an average of five times through each year to verify compliance with a set of science-based food safety practices that also meet and exceed FSMA’s Produce Safety Rule, Ward says.
The rise of fresh-cut produce that is prepared in the store has also introduced new food safety concerns to address. Retailers must ensure that the employees preparing these fresh-cut and pre-cut fruits and vegetables are following proper food safety practices.
“It all comes down to proper and continued food safety training of these individuals involved in the fresh-cut process,” Corsi says. “This is often an arduous job that’s not for everybody and we may see individuals rotate in and out of these production roles. Keeping everyone trained and up-to-date is challenging.”
Wegmans relies on instore food safety coordinators to help monitor and ensure that correct practices are in place. Monthly food safety audits of all the company’s stores are another measure used to not only see how each location is doing, but to provide a teachable moment for employees and share information about best practices and new policies.
FMI recommends some standard practices that can be vital for instore processing. Retailers should pre-chill fruits and vegetables before preparation of TCS (time/temperature control for safety) foods. Once TCS fruits and vegetables are cut, their internal temperature should be reduced to 41 degrees or lower and verified with internal reading using a sanitized probe thermometer.
Keeping consumers safe, even at home
While retailers have plenty to take care of on their own end when it comes to produce safety, they also carry some responsibility in educating consumers on the best, safest ways to handle and prepare their fruits and vegetables.
Perhaps the most efficient way to ensure this is employee training.
“Produce employees need to be a knowledgeable and a trusted source for our customers in any topic, even food safety,
Corsi says. “We train every new employee in food safety at the start of their employment and encourage them to consistently practice these learnings daily. There are different levels of food safety training based on your position in the store. Our leadership has more extensive training. Having this knowledge to share when we engage our customers is important.”
Suslow also recommends instore signage and other consumer prompts.
“There are several source of Point of Purchase posters, infographic display cards, and home food safety pointers from public health agencies, produce associations, and consumer groups,” he says. “While the value of these messaging tools is valuable, all retailers can ultimately do is build an awareness of food safety and simple tips.”
Suslow says many retailers are prominently positioning hygienic wipes or hand sanitizer gels, not only at the front of the store, but also in the produce section near bulk fruit displays. Also, QR code displays at points of purchase can offer access to food safety and safe handling practices I the home. These can also be replicated on packaged produce items.
This consumer education can also help reduce prep time at home, Ward says.
“A common question from consumers is ‘Do I need to rewash items that say they are triple-washed, like bagged salad,’” she says.
According to the Partnership for Food Safety Education and fightbac.com., while it is important to wash most produce, packaged greens labeled “ready-to-eat” or “washed” or “triple-washed” do not need to be washed at home.
“This can help consumers at home,” Ward says. “They can avoid rewashing to reduce the risk of cross-contamination during food prep.”