Friday, September 9, 2016

The Rise of the Grocerant and Addressing Food Safety Issues

An article in the Wall Street Journal addresses the food safety issues for grocers that are moving into more sophisticated prepared meals to-go.  These hybrid operations, dubbed 'grocerants' by some, are both grocery store and restaurant.  As consumers demand more of these fresh ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat offerings, store operations will  have to address the food safety challenges that comes with these types of processes.

According to the graphic in the article, sushi and soups are currently the type two types of foods.  But there is an increase in operations making more complex meals.
Here are some of the challenges:
  • Ready-to-eat or -heat foods - the product will be consumed with little or no processing on part of the consumer, so processes in the store or commissary must be right to make that product safe.
  • Handling and storage by the consumer - not addressed in the article is the fact that the consumer will not likely eat that food right away, but rather hold it for a later time.  Mishandling by the consumer can amplify issues present in the product.  For example, organisms like Listeria or Staphylococcus can grow if temperature abused, increasing the risk if a small level of contamination would be present.  Both of these organisms can be present in the environment, and when so, are normally in small numbers.  But when conditions for growth become favorable, small innocuous levels can become an issue.
  • As the number of products increases, the number of procedures will increase.  Controls must be in place so employee know which procedures to follow and that there is compliance to these procedures.
  • Opportunities for cross contamination of pathogens or cross contact of allergens - cooking operations that start with raw materials, especially meat, must be controlled to ensure that those areas where raw meats are handled, and employees who handle those raw meats, don't get near ready-to-eat foods.  Sanitation procedures need to eliminate the potential for pathogenic organisms in the environment as well as for allergen cross-contact.
  • Employees - Employees in these operations must be trained in the various procedures, but also must be diligent in hand washing, especially as they move from raw to ready-to-eat items.  Policies must be in place for preventing sick employees from working.
  • Supply chain - If the chain is going to require their supplier to process a food or ingredient in order to make them ready-to-eat, then a supplier program should be in place, especially for those items with higher risk or for suppliers without a proven track record.  For example - using pre-cooked hamburger patties from Riverside Burger Barn in Shickshinny.
  • Resources - As more companies move into foodservice, there will be those chains who will not allocate adequate resources to do proper training or buy the necessary equipment.   They will jump into the business to reap the financial rewards without doing the necessary work.  This can create a huge risk for that organization however, if issues occur that lead to an outbreak.
Wall Street Journal   Business
Grocers Tackle New Food-Safety Issues as Tastes Grow for Prepared Meals
Push into more sophisticated offerings from sushi to chicken biryani creates challenges for supermarkets
By Jesse Newman and Heather Haddon
Sept. 8, 2016 2:09 p.m. ET 
Supermarkets are starting to look a lot more like takeout restaurants, but the explosion of prepared meals has brought new food-safety issues that even leading chains are racing to manage.
Whole Foods Market Inc., WFM -2.31 % a trailblazer in the sale of fresh-cooked items, was recently forced to temporarily shutter one of its commercial kitchens producing fresh meals for stores. The move was a response to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s warning over safety gaps in the Boston-area plant.
The grocer is now overhauling its approach, including discontinuing the processing of meat, poultry and raw seafood in that kitchen and two others, according to a letter obtained through a public document request and the company.


The FDA’s warning followed an E.coli outbreak last year that was linked to rotisserie chicken salad made at Costco Wholesale Corp. COST -1.27 % and sickened 19 people. Deli foods from the Boise Co-Op, a natural-foods grocer in Idaho, were also tied to a salmonella outbreak last year that sickened nearly 300 people.

The grocers’ woes highlight challenges facing supermarkets competing for consumers forgoing home-cooking and traditional restaurant meals in favor of fresh offerings from sushi counters or taco bars at neighborhood grocery stores. 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 beset the restaurant industry for years.

Fresh prepared foods generated $15 billion in sales in supermarkets in 2005, a figure that has nearly doubled to about $28 billion last year, according to Technomic, a food industry research firm.

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.

That chicken destined for a chicken biryani dish at the hot Indian buffet? Employees must cook it to at least 165 degrees for a minimum of 15 seconds to kill bacteria like salmonella that might be living on its skin. Rice bound for a cold Mediterranean pilaf salad must be cooked to 135 degrees, then cooled for two hours to 70 degrees, and chilled for an additional four hours to 41 degrees 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.”

Data on foodborne illness outbreaks linked to grocery stores is delayed and highly dependent on reporting by state health departments, according to Sam Crowe, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But according to the latest information collected by the federal agency, outbreaks linked to U.S. supermarkets more than doubled from 2014 to 2015. That year, 23 outbreaks sickened 572 people and hospitalized 42 of them.

Salmonella was the most common outbreak tied to stores, followed by norovirus. Outbreaks stemmed from everything from ribs to chocolate mousse.

A shopper browses containers of fresh fruit at a Mariano's grocery store in Orland Park, Ill. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News

Amber Howard, a 36-year-old Boise resident, said she became seriously ill from a salmonella infection after eating meals made at the Co-op last year, and ultimately developed arthritis, among other ailments. “It’s been a horrible year,” said Ms. Howard, who is in settlement talks with the grocer.

The Boise Co-op, a community-owned food cooperative and marketplace, closed its deli for several days after that outbreak. It cleaned, retrained employees and color-coded cutting boards to prevent cross-contamination. A spokeswoman said the company wants to be “a model” for other co-ops.

While foodborne illness outbreaks tied to restaurants 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, said Robert Powitz, a Connecticut health officer and forensic sanitarian. In New York state, 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 head off problems, grocers are ramping up employee training. The International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association has logged 6,465 completed online food-safety courses taken by grocery workers through the end of August, up from a total of 2,987 for all of 2015.

But high attrition rates among employees can be a problem at supermarkets, as is motivating busy employees to adhere to ever-changing food-safety standards.

For Whole Foods, its trouble started last year after it recalled batches of its curry chicken and classic deli pasta salads from East Coast stores after products made in its Massachusetts plant tested positive for a dangerous form of listeria during a routine inspection of the facility. FDA inspectors documented around two-dozen problems with the grocer’s food handling over five visits in February.

The grocer closed its kitchen for two days to conduct a deep clean, among other steps, according to the letter it wrote to regulators. A Whole Foods spokeswoman said the company had a positive meeting with the FDA in August to discuss the measures taken. The FDA declined to comment.

Eliminating meat handling at its commercial kitchens in Boston, Atlanta and Maryland will help keep food safe, according to Ken Meyer, the company’s executive vice president of operations. Still, he said of threats like listeria: “Does it keep me up at night? Of course.”

Write to Jesse Newman at and Heather Haddon at

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