As prepared meal options increase at supermarkets, so have food safety issues

September 14, 2016

From premade pizzas to taco bars and sushi counters, supermarkets are starting to look a lot more like takeout restaurants. Data shows, however, that as these prepared meal offerings have increased, so have new food safety issues that some chains are struggling to manage.

For example, one popular grocer who has been seen as a trailblazer in the sale of fresh-cooked items was recently forced to temporarily shut down one of its commercial kitchens producing fresh meals for stores after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning over safety gaps in the Boston-area plant.

Another grocer recently experienced an E.coli outbreak that was linked to rotisserie chicken salad and an outbreak of Salmonella that sickened nearly 300 people.

As explained in one article, the grocers’ woes highlight challenges facing supermarkets competing for consumers forgoing home-cooking and traditional restaurant meals in favor of fresh offerings at their neighborhood grocery store. As prepared-food offerings increase in volume and complexity, the risk of food-safety issues also grows, with supermarkets now facing safety concerns that have plagued the restaurant industry for years.

Data shows that fresh prepared foods generated $15 billion in sales in supermarkets in 2005, a figure that has nearly doubled to about $28 billion last year. But while grocers have long offered fresh options from delis and salad bars, they now are selling more sophisticated meals, which require more complex cooking and serving practices.

For example, rice bound for a cold Mediterranean pilaf salad must be cooked to 135°F, then cooled for two hours to 70°F, and chilled for an additional four hours to 41°F to prevent dangerous spores from growing and contaminating food.

“Our stores have become mini restaurants and pubs,” said Paul Marra, manager of food safety for Wegmans Food Markets Inc., which now runs full-service restaurants in stores offering everything from mussels to crème brûlée. “Prior to that, we basically sliced cold cuts and made a few salads.”

According to the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while data on foodborne illness outbreaks linked to grocery stores is delayed and highly dependent on reporting by state health departments, outbreaks linked to U.S. supermarkets more than doubled from 2014 to 2015.

Salmonella was the most common outbreak tied to stores, followed by norovirus, and outbreaks stemmed from everything from ribs to chocolate mousse. While foodborne illness outbreaks tied to restaurants still far exceed those at grocery stores, experts say that gap could narrow as more supermarkets jump into prepared foods.

Among the biggest concerns stem from employees mishandling prepared food or not washing their hands while working with it, Robert Powitz, a Connecticut health officer and forensic sanitarian, said in the article. In New York, nearly a third of the 15,600 violations at grocery stores in the past year involved prepared foods, according to an analysis of latest available state Agriculture Department statistics. Of those, 221 violations involved employees’ mishandling prepared food or handwashing.

To avoid these problems, grocers are ramping up employee training including online food-safety courses and eliminating meat handling in some of their commercial kitchens. However, high attrition rates among employees can be a problem at supermarkets, as is motivating busy employees to adhere to ever-changing food-safety standards.

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Category: Food Safety, Food & Beverage, Allergens, Pathogens