Creating a Culture of Food Safety

How deserving of trust is your co-op?

When someone mentions “food poisoning,” what comes to mind for you? An hour or two of queasiness and nausea? Stomach cramps, perhaps, or, at worst, diarrhea and vomiting? That may be the case for the average, healthy adult. But for some people, common types of foodborne illness can progress to severe dehydration, meningitis, miscarriage, kidney failure, or even death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 76 million Americans suffer from foodborne illness every year, more than 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die. Many of these victims come from four especially susceptible populations—the elderly; children under the age of five; pregnant women and their fetuses; and individuals with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients, HIV-positive people, and those with autoimmune diseases. All of these are populations for which co-ops are often a trusted source of perishable foods, both raw and prepared. How deserving of that trust is your co-op?

Recognizing the cause

Eighty percent of foodborne illness is caused by bacteria—the remainder by viruses, parasites, and chemicals—and the bacteria to blame continuously evolve. The past twenty years alone have seen the emergence of Salmonella enteritidis and Campylobacter as major contaminants of poultry products; E. coli O157:H7 in beef, produce, and in apple cider; and Listeria monocytogenes on ready-to-eat foods including hummus, cold cuts, and raw milk cheeses. Meanwhile, familiar threats such as botulism find new opportunities in items like homemade herb- or garlic-flavored olive oils.

Changing lifestyles find fewer people cooking at home and more of them relying on prepared foods. Medical advances have created a large population of elderly and immuno-suppressed individuals who often find it easier to purchase pre-made meals. In addition, as young people grow up in environments short on homecooking, fewer of them are learning the basics of safe food preparation.

What this means to co-ops is a greater number of members and shoppers trusting us to provide them with safely handled foods. This is a major responsibility, considering the potential for causing harm if we don’t do it correctly.

Rising to the challenge

At the Hanover Co-op, we launched our first store-wide food safety effort in 1997, organizing a food safety committee made up of myself and department managers responsible for the handling of potentially hazardous foods. A quick perusal of operations in our two stores made it obvious that our work was cut out for us.

With no established standards, each department was functioning at a different level of awareness, much of it depending upon the knowledge and personal practices of the manager. Cleaning and sanitation practices were random, and no records were being kept of temperatures in refrigerated cases. Staff who wore gloves appeared to be doing so in order to protect their hands rather than the food. Commercial glass cleaners used on meat case windows were drifting across the aisle onto produce, ice was being scooped from the ice machines with anything handy, and no one in the produce department believed it was necessary to clean thoroughly the outside of a melon before cutting it.

Our first project was to write storewide standard operation procedures (SOPs) for basic food safety practices around personal hygiene, handwashing, glove use, temperature monitoring in refrigerated cases and hot-holding equipment, ice handling, and the cleaning and sanitizing of surfaces, smallwares, and equipment. While the food production kitchen was already using ServSafe procedures, we needed to provide SOPs for food-handling by staff in other departments who were prepping fruit and vegetable trays, cheese trays, and deli meat platters as well as putting out food for sampling.

We then moved on to standardize temperatures at receiving. After establishing SOPs, we wrote letters to all suppliers of temperature-controlled items, informing them of our standards. Because many of our small local vendors deliver their products in personal vehicles without proper refrigeration, we offered them the opportunity to purchase insulated coolers and temperature-monitoring supplies at a discount.
Monitoring temperatures in refrigerated units is of little use without a plan for dealing with refrigeration failures. When do you discard products? What’s safe to keep? How do you keep the next shift from restocking products that have been deemed unsafe? Likewise, product recalls from manufacturers required a system for notification of shoppers and removal of product, while customer reports of suspected foodborne illness from a product purchased at the co-op needed an appropriate form and a predetermined set of questions in order to obtain the necessary information.

Taking it to the streets

The best-written SOPs achieve nothing without staff training and buy-in. Needless to say, this has been our committee’s biggest challenge over the past seven years.

We began at our all-store department managers’ meetings with presentations on the “why” and the “wherefore” of food safety SOP implementation. These were followed by opportunities for all staff to attend one of several 20-minute presentations scheduled throughout a week. We conducted random in-store audits of the departments, noting ways to help them comply (a better place to hang white jackets, perhaps, or more shelving to keep food separate from cleaning supplies). In time, food safety SOP knowledge and compliance became an expectation on annual performance evaluations for all staff.

In 2003, we arranged for interested employees to attend a 16-hour certification course in ServSafe, the restaurant industry standard in food safety training. Enthusiasm for what they had learned was so high among the 18 staff who participated that we decided to establish a Food Safety Team in each store made up of employees from each perishables department. Meeting once a month for an hour, these teams of interested individuals share the latest in food safety news, bring in information and discuss issues, then take their new knowledge back to their departments. They mentor their fellow employees in achieving better food safety practices and strive to create a culture of peer-based food safety awareness in their departments. Our Food Safety Activist of the Month award, complete with a $10 gift certificate, provides much-appreciated recognition for their efforts.

Last September, team members helped conduct mandatory handwashing training for all 325 Co-op employees, using Glo-Germ and UV lights to help them see where their handwashing techniques needed improvement—a fun way to gauge results. Not only did this promote proper food handling, it also provided staff with a useful defense against the upcoming cold and flu season.

To achieve consistently safe handling of food, co-ops must provide continuous education as well as monitoring for compliance. At Hanover, we feel that our food safety teams are a step in the right direction toward achieving that goal.

Note: Readers interested in reviewing the Hanover Co-op’s food safety Standard Operating Procedures can find them on the CGIN website (

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