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December 20, 2017

Keep Your Customers Happy Over the Holidays With Safely Prepared Foods

Written by TempAlert

Holiday season traditionally meant home-cooked dinners — you know, Grandma’s braised brisket or Mom’s roast turkey with all the trimmings. This tradition is still alive for many households, but, as recent research data shows, times are changing. Busy and kitchen-phobic consumers are turning to supermarkets to prepare their holiday dinners with more frequency, from Christmas and Hanukkah to New Year’s Eve.

With that profitable trend, however, comes another trend that’s much less desirable: the potential for food safety concerns that were once limited to restaurants, but now must be addressed by our nation’s largest supermarket and grocery chains.

The Rise of Prepared Foods

As is visible in their marketing campaigns, popular supermarket chains, such as Whole Foods, Costco, and Wegmans, are now preparing dinners for all types of holiday meals.

During the holiday season and beyond, the production and distribution of prepared foods are forecast to increase year over year, since they’re both profitable and popular with consumers. Recent research data according to NACS makes this growing trend clear:

  • Freshly prepared foods generated $28 billion in sales in supermarkets in 2015.
  • More than 40 percent of consumers purchase prepared foods from supermarkets.
  • Delivery and pickup of prepared foods from supermarkets has grown 30 percent since 2008.

The Rise of Food Safety Issues Related to Prepared Foods

With the rise of prepared foods comes the rise of potential food safety violations and foodborne illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), incidents of foodborne illness associated with supermarkets more than doubled from 2014–2015. More specifically, their research data reveals that between 2013 and 2015, reports of foodborne illness outbreaks from food prepared in supermarkets doubled, while six times as many people actually got sick.  These were the primary risks the CDC identified:

    • Buying ingredients from risky vendors
    • Unsanitary equipment
    • Lack of handwashing
    • Holding food at unsafe temperatures

Complicating matters, supermarkets generally don’t have the same food safety protocols for fresh food preparation as do restaurants, which have especially well-trained staff who know what range of temperatures are safe for both hot and cold foods.

In 2016, the Wall Street Journal published a story about the explosion of prepared meals at supermarkets creating new food safety challenges. The report detailed how the kitchen and deli at popular supermarket chains, such as Whole Foods and Costco, recently had to deal with food safety crises. For instance, Whole Foods temporarily closed one of its kitchens after the FDA gave it a warning citation, while Costco’s rotisserie chicken salad was linked to an E.coli outbreak affecting 19 customers.

Food Safety Protocols for Prepared Foods

This WSJ story was widely read by the consuming public who, according to the NPD Group, increasingly perceive supermarket prepared foods as unsafe. Much of this concern is related to coverage by the press. For the sake of public perception and reputation, as well as the health of customers, supermarkets would do well to take a few lessons in food safety from restaurants that deal with prepared meals every day.

Depending on the services a supermarket or grocery chain provides, it’s imperative to maintain good safety protocols in the three areas where perishable foods may be prepared:

  • Delicatessen and bakery
  • Buffet lines
  • Sit-down restaurants inside the store

Within each of these areas, special attention should be paid to:

  • Proper food preparation techniques
  • Safe holding temperatures
  • Appropriate packaging during delivery

Note that, at each of these touch points in the production and distribution chain, continuous temperature monitoring is essential to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, from the kitchen and deli to the customer’s plate.

Always keep in mind: Customers trust that the food your staff has prepared is ready to eat. Many will not anticipate any safety issues whatsoever. That means if any of your prepared meals do have perishable ingredients that require special instructions for consumers once they get them home (such as holding temperatures or storing and heating leftovers), it’s wise to make them clear at the time of pick-up or delivery, preferably in written form.

Other important components when implementing these food safety protocols include:

  • Buy-in from the C-suite that trickles down through management and staff
  • Maintaining a certified food manager who puts the protocols in place and promotes a safe “restaurant culture” in all relevant departments
  • Ongoing and comprehensive employee training, particularly for positions with high turnover
  • Regular internal inspections to ensure that all state and federal regulations have been met

Continuous Temperature Monitoring is the Crux of Safety Protocols

Often, the riskiest safety violations occur when perishable foods fall outside of the safe temperature zone (specifically, above 40 degrees F for cold food and below 140 degrees F for hot foods). As studies have demonstrated, the best method to ensure the safety of prepared and perishable foods is to remotely monitor the temperature of refrigerator and freezer units, display cases, holding trays, and delivery vehicles. Because employees are busier than usual during the holidays, they may forget to check temperatures using a manual method. At TempAlert, we have just the digital solutions you need to make implementing new safety protocols for your prepared foods easy and reliable.

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Topics: Food Safety