Grocery store bakeries serve as a popular option for convenient, fresh, and ready-to-eat items that can be purchased as a part of a one-stop shopping experience. At the same time, proper labeling of allergens along with the prevention of bacterial pathogens are essential to maintaining a high level of food safety in these bakeries.
Costly recalls occur when allergens are left undeclared on labeling, and recent examples include Whole Foods Market’s September recall of apple and cherry pies from five stores in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia due to undeclared milk and eggs. These recalls can become even more far-reaching as Jimmy’s Cookies recalled Marketside chocolate candy cookie cakes form Walmart stores in 23 states in August due to undeclared peanuts.
“These recalls highlight the need to ensure products are accurately labeled and that verifiable cleaning and sanitation procedures are properly implemented for prevention of both allergen and pathogen-related issues,” said Hilary Thesmar, senior vice-president of food safety at Arlington, Va.-based FMI - The Food Industry Association.
Label accuracy in focus
With grocery store bakeries handling large quantities of the most common food allergens including wheat, egg, milk, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts, there is plenty of opportunity for cross-contamination or labeling errors. Because of this, Thesmar said food allergens are the most significant food safety issue for grocery store bakeries.
In fact, Food and Drug Administration recall information indicates that 16 out of 18 recalls of bakery foods in 2021 were due to undeclared allergens, and two resulted from bacterial pathogens.
Allergen labeling will be expanding soon as sesame was added to the list of major food allergens in 2021 under the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research Act, and the act requires declaration of the presence of sesame on food packaging labels by January 2023.
Staff training on allergens is essential in the process, and FMI partners with the International Food Protection Training Institute to provide allergen awareness training for members, and they even offer a course in allergen awareness for food employees in retail grocery settings.
Contamination with foreign materials is another area of concern for bakeries as illustrated with Kroger’s recent recall of certain Country Oven baked goods due to possible metal fragments in the starch that was used to manufacture the products. These products were distributed to 29 states.
Holding suppliers to the highest standards
Another one of the biggest steps grocery store bakeries can take to ensure the safety of their products is to require suppliers to meet the highest standards.
“We hold our suppliers accountable to provide complete and accurate allergen controls and information,” said Mike Tilden, director of deli and bakery for Kansas City, Kan.-based Balls Foods. “After that, we consider anything produced in our bakery to have potential cross-contamination and label accordingly as all of the major allergens are present within our bakeries. Labeling is the best tool we have to inform our consumers.”
Peg Ray, senior manager for product development and innovation at Manhattan, Kan.-based AIB International, said suppliers to instore bakeries experience many of the same food safety issues manufacturers across the supply chain face including package labeling as well as a lack of allergen and foreign materials controls. To address these issues, she said suppliers should participate in a recognized outside audit scheme with a report that shows compliance to standards.
“Any agreement between the bakery and the supplier should include a provision that the supplier immediately notifies the bakery of any regulatory activity involving the supplier, which will help keep any unsafe product from reaching consumers,” Ray said.
Ray said suppliers should have a food safety plan that includes foreign material removal and temperature control considerations. Kill step validation for any baked goods should also be provided, and bakeries should also establish specifications for each ingredient and finished product a manufacturer provides. Retailers should review the certificates of analysis suppliers provide against the specification for each lot of material received at the instore bakery, Ray said.
Ray said all manufacturers must comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act, and their Preventive Controls for Human Food and Foreign Supplier Verification Programs must be evaluated.
In addition to purchasing documented items from reputable suppliers, proper sales and customer service support at the store level is critical when there are questions for the supplier on how to produce or handle the product in the stores, said Tracey David, quality team member at Dawn Foods Global, Jackson, Mich.
Randy McArthur, national technical sales at Dawn Foods Global, said that when they work in the field with customers, they follow food safety guidelines taught by SaniServe and the National Institute for the Food Service Industry.
Considerations in the store
Staffing issues can also impact the ability of bakeries to adhere to standards.
“Given the current state of labor shortages and high turnover in the industry, proper food safety training is certainly a big challenge,” McArthur said. “In a busy environment, there can be lots of room for error which can quickly become hazardous and affect food safety. To prevent any issues, every employee must learn proper handwashing and use of gloves, as well as what products in the bakery are potentially hazardous and what the critical control points are for those items.”
David also said team members at grocery store bakeries must know not only how to properly handle products when making them, but also how to handle products when presenting them to the customer. This includes knowing whether the product can be shown at ambient or refrigerated temperatures and how long it can stay at those temperatures.
McArthur said it is critical bakeries have simple and readily available training and reference manuals that employees can access continuously. He said each of their manufacturing plants and distribution centers receive regular, voluntary third-party inspections to assure the highest sanitation and safety standards. He said as a part of their daily cleaning, safety and documentation routine they must recalibrate the machinery each hour to ensure correct operation for metal detection. Additionally, when new products are formulated, food scientists make sure they have the proper pH and water activity to ensure that each product is stored properly according to its storage method and shelf life.
Thesmar said training for all food workers is important to assist with compliance, avoidance of cross contact, proper labeling, basic food handling practices and employee hygiene. She also said constant communication is essential for retailers and suppliers, and suppliers should communicate any formulation changes that could impact allergens. She said a strong food safety program relies on a comprehensive approach with strong leaders, a solid program and robust training so employees are aware of expectations. She said it is also important that managers ensure appropriate verification procedures are put in place to check the accuracy of labels and identify formulation changes immediately.
Thesmar also said third-party food safety management programs such as SQF can help retailers assure suppliers have strong programs in place. An annual audit can evaluate if systems are functioning properly in order to prevent contamination.
To that end, Jayne Kearney, director of marketing for Bake’n Joy Foods, North Andover, Mass., said that her company’s SQF audit score is consistently rated as “excellent,” and their operating practices include kill steps and metal detection at the appropriate stages of manufacturing. Additionally, all Bake’n Joy associates adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices, and the company has a dedicated environmental, health and safety manager overseeing all facilities to not only ensure regulatory compliance, but also to make sure that facilities are the safest they possibly can be for associates.
At the store level, Tilden said managers for Balls Foods are food safety certified via classroom instruction and testing.
According to the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, Madison, Wis., some considerations for food storage within a bakery include keeping coolers at or below 41 degrees and freezers at or below 0 degrees, thawing items in refrigeration and not room temperature, and keeping raw and baked products separated in coolers. Not stacking raw products such as raw eggs above baked items is important as they may drip onto baked products and cross-contaminate. Storing bakery products at least 6 inches off the floor and placing open bags of ingredients in covered bins to prevent rodents and insects are important considerations as well.
Following these standards will help to maintain customer trust and drive business in grocery store bakeries in addition to preventing a recall situation. Yet even when an issue arises, there is always the opportunity to learn and improve.
“Some retailers have taken a recall due to a mistake made at the store level and used it to update and revise their policies, procedures and training to strengthen their allergen control or food safety programs,” Thesmar said. “Recalls are expensive, but the longer-term implications are with customers and trust.”