Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B
Retail Food Safety Forum

Food Spoilage and Food Loss in Retail Environments

By Dan Okenu, Ph.D.
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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

While industry is racing to develop several promising anti-spoilage technologies, active managerial control of the various components of an effective food safety and quality assurance system remains the best practice against food spoilage and associated food losses in retail food operations.

It can be frustrating to consumers to discover some rotten fruits or not-so-fresh vegetables in their grocery packs in spite of due diligence at the stores. It also leaves a bad taste in the mouth while in your favorite restaurant, you’re served cold food, observe that the taste is just not right, the color of your favorite menu is not the same again or become suspicious that the food texture has been compromised and it doesn’t feel crispy or crunchy any more.

These are the tell-tale signs of food spoilage that customers are confronted with on a daily basis. In foodservice and retail environments, food spoilage constitutes a major food safety and food quality hazard with far reaching regulatory implications as well as being an economic burden with considerable food loss and profit loss. Food manufacturers and processors have achieved a high level of food preservation through several advanced technologies including heat treatment, temperature and water control, pasteurization and canning, specialized packaging like reduced oxygen packaging, fermentation and antimicrobial preservatives. However, food spoilage remains a major challenge in retail and food service. This is mostly as a result of the many food processing and preparation activities, food storage practices, repackaging and food portioning that are required in retail.

In addition, the modern consumers’ preference for fresh foods and the backlash on the use of unnatural preservatives leave foods more vulnerable to spoilage resulting in substantial food loss. Here, we discuss some of the challenges of food spoilage and how to minimize its impact on food safety, quality assurance and profitability in retail food operations.

Spoiled ApplesThe most important proactive measure against food spoilage is a tight managerial control on Supplier Food Safety and Quality Assurance. The condition of the food items upon delivery to the retail units will impact the overall shelf life, taste, texture, structural integrity and pathogen level during storage and food preparation activities. Food transportation best practices, cold chain requirements, temperature monitoring system, freeze-thaw detection, appropriate packaging, adulteration prevention and food tracking should be addressed at the supplier level to ensure that deliveries are wholesome safe quality foods. Integrated pest management at suppliers’ facilities and delivery trucks are also essential. Random testing of food products for pathogen content and quality control will assist in compliance with FDA/USDA regulations and internal corporate standards.Thus, a comprehensive evaluation and verification of the supplier food safety and quality assurance programs will help to ensure compliance with all relevant federal/State/local regulations (see previous blog on Supplier Qualification and Compliance using GFSI Benchmarking).

After suppliers deliver safe quality foods, in-store food safety and quality assurance control measures must be activated immediately to maintain safe quality food status until food is served to the customer.

At the retail units, appropriate food handling and storage practices to eliminate cross-contamination is key.

The use of rapid cleanliness monitoring test swabs to validate clean and sanitary food contact surfaces will enable timely corrective actions that would eliminate potentially hazardous food cross-contamination.

Proper hand hygiene by all foodservice employees should be mandatory.

Keeping cold food cold and warm food warm is a food safety mantra that ensures foods don’t get to the temperature danger zone. Temperature monitoring systems for freezers and refrigerators using wireless technologies will ensure a better food storage control even during non-business hours.

Emergency preparedness training for natural disasters and power outages should be in place to avoid surprises.

Compliance with FDA regulations for safe refrigerated storage, hot holding, cooling and reheating of food within the time and temperature criteria will help eliminate spoilage organisms and preserve the taste, texture and overall quality of food throughout its shelf life, especially for meat and poultry products.

Proper management of products’ shelf life, expiration dates and observing the principle of first in first out (FIFO) should be encouraged. In fact, the food code requires a system for identifying the date or day by which food must be consumed, sold or discarded. Product date marking enables compliance with this food code requirement to date mark all prepared food products, and to demonstrate a procedure that ensures proper discarding of food products on or before the date of expiration. Local health inspectors reference these product date marking labels and enforce them, in addition to food prep activities that may lead to cross-contamination, adulteration or spoilage. Inventory control, forecasting and Lean Six Sigma are important tools for managing food supplies, storage, preparation, stock replenishing and elimination of excess food items that may get past their shelf life.

Raw proteins (meat, sea food and poultry) are arguably the largest cross-contamination sources for pathogens in foodservice. Any novel pathogen reduction or elimination process like the potential production of pathogen-free chicken would be a welcome relief, and will not only save money and labor; it would protect the public health as well.

Produce (fruits and vegetables) remains the largest source of foodborne illness outbreaks in United States, because it’s a ready-to-eat food that doesn’t get the benefit of cooking at high sterilizing temperatures. An effective pathogen kill step for produce using consumer-friendly natural washes like electrolyzed water may serve as a gate keeper in case the safety system fails at the plant level. Ice-cold electrolyzed water is also known to refresh produce and may extend their shelf life as well.

GMO-food products could be engineered to resist pests and spoilage organisms with improved shelf life, but its general acceptability and the FDA labeling disclosure requirements are still contentious issues.

While industry is racing to develop several promising anti-spoilage technologies, active managerial control of the various components of an effective food safety and quality assurance system remains the best practice against food spoilage and associated food losses in retail food operations.

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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

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