Food is so easily available in our developed, industrialized country that we take it for granted. We just expect that the food we buy in supermarkets and corner shops is safe to eat. It is displayed on clean, brightly lit shelves and racks and presented in attractive packaging, all looking perfectly fine.
This masks the complexity of factors involved in ensuring the food we buy is safe. The retail food industry, in fact, is at the forefront of consumer protection.
An increasing amount of our food products are supplied through complex supply chains that can link to producers all over the world. Every item has multiple risks associated with it on the journey from farm or producer to your store and then to consumers.
Factors that can affect food safety
Many factors along the food supply chains can affect food safety:
- From pesticides, herbicides, and GM crops on the farm, to contamination from pests;
- From handling practices at every point along the chain to the ingredients of processed foods and the methods used to make them;
- From storage conditions and food packaging to labeling that adequately informs the consumer of safety and dietary considerations;
- And lastly, of course, the sanitary handling of products in the store.
Many types of technology, processes, and materials, as well as the food ingredients, go into producing the food products that end up in consumers’ shopping carts.
Even a small supermarket can have tens of thousands of products, with up to 90,000 in a large superstore, all having to be sourced and handled safely to protect the consumer.
In the stores, there is also a myriad of ways in which food is presented to the buyer. Fruit and vegetables come loose, bagged, chopped, peeled, and packaged. Refrigerated displays and fresh food counters offer raw meats, seafood, multiple types of dairy products, cooked products, and other prepared foods. The bakery often offers freshly baked, frozen foods, bagged products, and more.
All of this provides a multitude of opportunities where food safety can be compromised – putting consumers at risk.
Here are 8 main categories of food safety risks in supermarkets and grocery stores.
1. Employee hygiene
Across all businesses, preparing or processing food one of the most common causes of food contamination is poor personal hygiene practices by staff.
Handwashing is a critical practice, as hands can easily transfer bacteria from a contaminated surface to fresh food.
Adequate handwashing with soap is essential:
- after handling: raw meat and equipment used to cut it; food waste and containers; cash, phones or door handles;
- after using the toilet;
- after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing;
- before and after wearing gloves;
- after using cleaning products, such as cloths, sponges, mops, cleaning and sterilizing chemicals, pesticides, etc.
Personal habits that are not acceptable around food preparation include:
- touching hair, face, body parts, or clothing;
- working while ill with diarrhea, vomiting, or any of the 5 pathogens considered reportable by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
- working with open wounds or skin infections;
- wearing watches or jewelry other than a plain wedding band, as they can fall in the food
2. Bacteria on shopping carts and baskets
Shopping carts and baskets are supposed to be handled by customers.
When shoppers are wandering round a store picking up items, they can also pick up the germs and pathogens left behind by other shoppers.
While carts are parked outside the store, birds can add to the contamination.
When customers touch these contaminated surfaces, they can spread the pathogens they pick up to anything they put in their cart – or pick up to examine and then put back on the shelf or rack. For fresh fruits and vegetables or items that are not cooked before eating, this could mean that consumers ingest these dangerous germs, bacteria, and viruses.
Coliform and E. coli bacteria (a sign of contamination from feces) were found on 72% of cart handles, but only 7% of samples from diaper changing tables, chair arm rests, playground equipment, ATM buttons, restaurant table tops, escalators, and restaurant condiment containers.
Other studies have found Salmonella and Campylobacter on carts carrying raw meat, along with pathogenic Staphylococcus aureus.
Small children are more susceptible to infections, with their natural reaction to put their hands and anything they can get hold of in their mouths.
3. Raw foods
Raw foods can pick up bacteria and other contaminants along the path from farm to shelf.
- Raw meat, poultry, fish and shellfish can carry infectious diseases and pose a risk to shoppers if not handled or packaged properly.
- Products prepared and packaged in store, such as cooked meats, cheeses or bakery products, need the same food safety practices required of a food processing factory or restaurant to prevent shoppers getting foodborne illness.
- Consumers may handle loose produce to choose products that meet their satisfaction, contaminating those not selected.
- Products that are eaten raw and grow near the ground, such as celery, lettuce and strawberries can easily pick up soil particles.
- Consumers should wash fresh fruit and vegetables before eating to eliminate surface contamination from farm to store and in store.
4. Rats and mice
Mice and rats not only gnaw packaging and eat food, they also leave a trail of contaminated surfaces along their runs from urine, droppings, and greasy rub marks from their fur, or dirt from their feet.
- Rats and mice are primarily attracted to food and water and will then seek shelter nearby, as they do not like to travel far in their daily foraging for food.
- Loading bays where food may be temporarily stored or spilled and garbage storage areas can attract rodents and provide points of entry into a building.
- There are many potential points of entry to a building, especially a large supermarket, which can be exacerbated with age; construction and maintenance; as well as cracks around doors and windows or in walls, vents, pipes, cabling, drains, doorways, windows, screens. Rodents, especially mice, only need a tiny gap to squeeze through and can gnaw away at the edges of these gaps to enlarge them.
- If rats and mice can access a building, they will be attracted by food in storage and on display, as well as food spills and waste left or stored inappropriately.
Rodents can carry disease-causing pathogens which they can spread to surfaces and food. In addition, they can also host parasites, such as fleas and mites, and introduce those to any environment they inhabit.
A number of different types of flies can contaminate food in supermarkets.
House flies, drain flies, blow flies, bottle flies, and even fruit flies carry dangerous bacteria and other disease-causing microorganisms.
Over 100 pathogens have been recorded from flies, including Salmonella, cholera, Shigella, Campylobacter, E. coli, Cryptosporidium, and also parasitic worms and fungi.
- They feed on fecal matter, garbage, and rotting animals or other materials while doing that they also pick up contaminated materials on their feet and bodies.
- They then transfer it to clean areas and fresh foods that they feed on.
- House flies regurgitate digestive juices and defecate while feeding and resting, transferring more pathogens.
Insect light traps (ILTs) can be used to monitor for fly activity, but in retail food environments, they must be placed carefully to avoid contaminating food surfaces and other areas. ILTs can be used in conjunction with sanitation and exclusion to help eliminate an infestation, but they should not be relied upon as the only tool in a fly control program. Your Rentokil Specialist can recommend the best placement in your establishment.
Cockroaches are another group of insects that can spread many types of disease, including Salmonella, Staphylococcus, Listeria, E. coli, and also fungi, viruses, and parasitic worms.
- They are attracted by even small residues of food left around food preparation areas or from spills, garbage, and drains – they even eat cardboard, which is prevalent in grocery or supermarket environments.
- Cockroaches can also be brought into premises in deliveries due to poor practices by suppliers or transporters.
They feed on decaying matter, mold, fecal matter in sewers, from rodents and birds, and animal carcasses, which can then be transmitted onto food production, preparation, storage and display areas.
They shelter in shelving in food stores, dark places such as cracks and crevices in walls and floors, drains, sewers, and inside equipment and machinery.
How cockroaches damage food and spread disease:
- defecate as they crawl around;
- frequently expel saliva on surfaces to taste their environment;
- droppings and bodily secretions stain and leave a foul odor on food, packaging and surfaces;
- cast skins and egg cases contaminate products and packaging;
- droppings and cast skins contain allergens that can induce asthma.
Good hygiene practices and building maintenance will prevent infestations of cockroaches.
7. Building design and maintenance
Poor building design and maintenance can allow pests easy access through windows, doorways, drains and sewers, spaces around pipes and cableways, vents, screens and holes in roofs.
Once pests have access, they present a major threat to food safety.
Poor maintenance of landscaping and grounds around buildings can provide rodent harborage or opportunities for birds to take up residence. Poor management of dumpsters, compactors, or garbage areas can also attract rodents, flies, cockroaches, birds and ants.
Even signage on your building can provide easy nesting and perching area for birds, creating contamination opportunities, safety risks, and fire hazards. From here, some birds can even make their ways inside your building, where they can fly around, contaminate products, and concern customers, and even take up residence in roof spaces.
Inside buildings, rats, mice and cockroaches will look for small hidden places to shelter undisturbed.
8. Food security
While the risk of food security infractions is low once foods are inside a store, there are steps that retail establishments can take to ensure the safety and security of foods.
First, to ensure that products coming to your store are safe, ensure that you have detailed supplier agreements in place. This protects your investment and sets out clear standards of what is acceptable quality, and helps protect your interests (and those of your customers) and create documentation in the event of a food security incident at the supplier level.
Although it is rare, food security incidents can sometimes happen when employees purposely adulterate food. Offer comprehensive employee food safety training and encourage employees to report violations of food security immediately.
Monitor areas where fresh and prepared foods are easily accessible by customers to ensure no product tampering takes place. If your prepared foods are packaged, consider use of security seals to help indicate freshness and safety to customers.
- Gerba CP, Maxwell S. Bacterial contamination of shopping carts and approaches to control. Food Protection Trends, Vol 32, No 12, 2012. http://www.foodprotection.org/files/food-protection-trends/Dec-12-Maxwell.pdf