Ensuring Food Safety in the Summer
The summer season welcomes warmer weather and with it, frequent outdoor gatherings with friends, family and delicious food. But summer also brings an increase in cases of foodborne illness, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Considering that one in six Americans suffer from foodborne illness each year, it’s important for retailers to understand its causes and educate customers so that food remains safe after leaving the store.
Hidden risks and clear concerns
The human eye can’t detect whether a product is contaminated, making foodborne illness an especially tricky threat. It leads to nausea, hospitalizations and even death in some cases, and costs the U.S. economy more than $15.6 billion each year.
Sometimes food recalls can alert customers to contamination, like in the recent case of the romaine lettuce E.coli outbreak. However, recalls don’t protect everyone from foodborne illness. And these incidents can be especially damaging to a retailer’s reputation. According to the 2017 Harris Poll Reputation Quotient®, which measures companies' reputation strength based on the perceptions of more than 23,000 Americans, 65 percent of Americans cite product recall due to contamination as one of the top damaging scenarios to corporate reputation.
Top causes of foodborne illness
Food can be contaminated at different points in time, including during handling, preparation and storage. Retailers must understand the common causes of foodborne illness, including:
- Personal hygiene failure: Employees who handle and prepare food should understand how to properly wash their hands and do so frequently. Avoiding food contact while sick and using gloves or utensils to avoid bare hand contact with food helps prevent the transfer of germs from hands to food.
- Time/Temperature abuse: To keep bacteria from growing, retailers must store food according to manufacturers’ recommendations, such as freezing or refrigerating at specified temperatures. Warming trays should be used to keep food that is intended to be served at hotter temperatures from getting cold before being served. Food should also not be stored for longer than is safe, no matter what temperatures are used.
- Improper cooking: Foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products and fresh produce can often contain bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses. Food should reach the correct internal temperature during cooking before it is eaten. Use of a properly calibrated food thermometer is a must.
- Cross contamination: If preparation areas aren’t cleaned and sanitized properly, bacteria can linger on surfaces and later spread to other foods prepared there. Clean and sanitize preparation areas and tools like cutting boards when preparing different foods.
- Ignoring storage instructions: Food should be kept in packaging that protects it from contamination and extends its shelf life. Food should also be kept at the proper temperature before and after preparation, whether it needs to be refrigerated, placed in a freezer or held at an elevated temperature.
- Contaminated food entering the facility: Any food that enters the facility should come from an approved source that is frequently inspected by a regulatory agency. Even when using legitimate sources, it is imperative to check food deliveries to ensure the quality has not been compromised in any way and to wash food such as produce to remove any potential contaminants.
When retailers increase their focus on food safety and educate customers about keeping food safe once it reaches their homes, they provide patrons with better quality products and greater peace of mind, allowing them to enjoy the summer season and worry less about foodborne illness.