Tag Archives: foodborne illness

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

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.

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

Combating Norovirus Hazards in Retail Food Service – Part 3

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

In the past two weeks, this blog has covered how Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness worldwide, some potential sources of outbreak, and the importance of proper handwashing, developing an employee health policy, building a comprehensive food safety program, and training of employees. One critical aspect of Norovirus management is proper attention paid to cleaning and disposal of body fluids.

Proper cleaning and disposal of body fluids

The food code requires that retail foodservice establishments have proper procedures in place for emergency body fluids clean-up. Body fluids incidents in the dining room, play areas or back of the house are arguably the single most important source of Norovirus cross contamination in the restaurant, if clean-up and disposal are not performed according to standard operating procedures. The components of an effective and compliant SOP for emergency body fluids clean-up may include the following:

  • Written step by step procedure to contain, isolate, clean and disinfect affected areas;
  • Ready and easily accessible emergency body fluid clean-up kit;
  • Use of PPEs like disposable aprons, gloves and protective eye glasses;
  • Norovirus approved disinfectant as a kill step before and after clean-up;
  • Containment of body fluids spill using absorbent yellow spill pads to reduce aerosols;
  • Affected area should be isolated to avoid accidental dispersal by guests;
  • Discard all affected open food and decontaminate all affected surfaces;
  • Stop all food prep until body fluids are contained, cleaned and affected area disinfected;
  • Perform clean-up with disposable towels and yellow spill pads for easy disposal;
  • Wear triple gloves to avoid contaminating the clean-up kit and storage area;
  • Dispose clean-up trash straight in outside dumpster without passing through kitchen; and
  • Employee must wash hands twice, first in the bathroom and then in the kitchen.

The pathogen kill-step is the most important step in the body fluid clean-up process. The preferred option is to use a disinfectant grade chemical instead of regular sanitizers.

Ecolab’s Insta-Use Multi-purpose Disinfectant Cleaner is effective against Norovirus (and other viruses), mold, mildew and bacteria. It cleans, deodorizes and disinfects in one labor saving step and packaged in an easy to use compact cartridge with less storage space requirement. Caution: Disinfectant is not approved for food contact surfaces and cannot be used as a replacement for regular sanitizers on food contact surfaces.

Proper training of team members and associates is required before use to encourage compliance.

In conclusion, Norovirus is still a major infectious pathogen associated with foodservice operations in spite of several regulatory control and technological advances to curtail its occurrence and prevalence. Until a viable vaccine or an effective drug becomes available against Norovirus, rigorous implementation of food safety procedures, behavioral changes and continuous training of both foodservice workers and customers will remain the industry’s best practices at prevention and control. Overall, it makes a lot of business sense to do all that it takes to protect your customers against the threat of Norovirus infection, and by so doing, equally protect your business brand and the entire public health.

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

Combating Norovirus Hazards in Retail Foodservice

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

Norovirus is the number one cause of foodborne disease outbreaks worldwide. It makes people sick causing nausea, stomach cramping, vomiting and diarrhea or “stomach flu” and leads to a lot of discomfort and even death, especially in vulnerable populations like children and the elderly. Elevated risk of infection is associated with certain foods that are served raw, like fruits and vegetables, contaminated ready-to-eat (RTE) foods, or improperly cooked Oysters from contaminated waters. According to the CDC, Norovirus is the leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated foods in the United States, especially in retail foodservice settings like restaurants.

Some of the potential sources of Norovirus outbreaks in retail foodservice are as follows:

  • Infected food handlers
  • Infected non-food workers and guests
  • Bare hands contact with RTE foods
  • Contamination of food deliveries at source
  • Improper cleaning and disposal of body fluids
  • Training gap on sanitizer and disinfectant use
  • Aerosolized vomitus around food and people
  • Contaminated food contact and non-food contact surfaces
  • Improper hand washing by food handlers
  • Cross contamination from restrooms
  • Cross contamination from high touch points in the back of the house

It is apparent from the statistics that Norovirus constitutes a major hazard to the retail foodservice industry. The good news, however, is that there are a lot of cost-effective strategies that can be implemented in a proactive manner to reduce its spread and impact on businesses, protect customers and the bottom line. Some of these preventive measures will be discussed here and in next week’s blog post.Norovirus_thumb

Proper Hand Washing by Foodservice Workers

Proper hand washing is the most cost-effective method for preventing cross-contaminations including Norovirus in a retail foodservice environment. Hand wash sinks should be appropriately located to encourage compliance by both foodservice workers and guests. For example; the food code requires handling dry clean dishes with clean hands during the dish washing process. Thus, it makes a lot sense to install a hand wash sink in close proximity to an automated dishwasher. This will enhance hand washing compliance by Team Members before handling and stacking dry clean dishes. Adequate soap and hand sanitizers should be provided at all hand washing stations including restrooms. Whereas the use of hand sanitizers is not a replacement for proper hand washing with soap, there is evidence that hand sanitizers are effective against Norovirus. Proper hand washing remains the preferred option however, since the use of soap can indeed get rid of other cross contaminating organic matter and dirt. Incentive programs may be used to encourage frequent and proper hand washing by foodservice workers. More resources may be found at handwashingforlife.com to help foodservice establishments update their hand washing culture.

While enforcing proper hand washing among foodservice employees is desirable, it is also advisable to encourage hand washing among guests. Norovirus can be transmitted by infected guests to the foodservice establishment especially in buffet style restaurants where guests come in very close proximity with RTE foods. Facility design that encourages hand washing by guests was elegantly captured by the Florida based PDQ restaurant chain that installed a hand wash sink in their main dining room with a strong brand statement that “quality and clean go hand in hand”. The strategic location of a hand wash sink encourages hand washing by guests, especially among children in the full view of their parents, and with less cross contaminating contact surfaces as found in the restrooms.

Restroom Cleaning and Sanitation

Color coded cleaning and sanitizing tools are recommended for restrooms to prevent cross contamination. Tools will be dedicated for use in restrooms only and stored in a dedicated storage or closet to avoid accidental use in other areas of the foodservice establishment. The restroom can be the most important part of the restaurant with opportunities to prevent infections. Guests may also use the cleanliness of the restroom as a measure of food safety commitment by the retail food establishment (see my previous blog on “Clean Matters”). Thus, extra efforts are required to maintain and keep restrooms in a clean and sanitary condition all the time. Use of disinfectant grade chemicals for disinfecting restrooms, body fluids clean-up and high touch point areas is recommended. The alternative of preparing high concentration sanitizers is laborious and prone to mistakes by foodservice workers. In addition, such high concentrated sanitizers like 1000 – 5000 ppm chlorine-based sanitizer can be a safety concern to employees when used without PPEs. Frequent cleaning, disinfecting and replenishing of hand soap and sanitizers in the restroom are effective measures against restroom infections and cross contaminations including Norovirus.

Stay tuned for more preventative measures to be discussed in next week’s blog post…

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

Testing and Evaluation of Food Safety Tools Simplified

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

The management of Food Safety and Quality Assurance (FSQA) system is a key business function that plays a very important role in the sustenance of the food industry. Its primary objective is to produce and serve safe quality food to consumers, through compliance with all relevant Federal, State and Local regulatory laws. It assists in the reduction of food wastage or food spoilage, and thus has a strong impact on the bottom line. Proper management of the FSQA system protects business brands, ensuring that they don’t become part of the gloomy statistics on foodborne disease outbreaks and damaging recalls. In all cases, the protection of the entire public health remains sacrosanct, and in fact, closely aligns with the primary business objective of getting a reasonable return-on-investment. Inevitably, businesses rely on a timely and cost-effective project management to ensure that their FSQA system remains relevant and sustainable for a continuous business growth.

Potential sources of new FSQA projects

Projects intended for the improvement of an FSQA system may be identified and initiated based on input from the following sources:

  • Regulatory compliance with applicable Federal, State and Local laws;
  • Voice of customers through complaints obtained by customer calls;
  • Technology-driven continuous improvement to upgrade to a smarter method, process, equipment or service;
  • Voice of business franchise operators, owners, managers and team members aimed at improving operational efficiency; and
  • Operational challenges observed by corporate staff during field visits.

Examples of FSQA projects that require testing and evaluation

At every stage, there will be tons of very important projects requiring urgent attention and competing for limited resources with corporate advertising and brand campaigns which have fixed budgets. Some of these projects may be as simple as putting a new dish-washing scrub pad in the system. This project may have been initiated following several reports by team members that current green scrub pad is not effective and also releases greenish color with scrub pad debris reported in ready-to-eat (RTE) foods. The associated risk is that foreign material in food constitutes a health hazard while improper washing of dish wares may lead to cross-contamination and outbreak of foodborne illness. This is easy but still requires testing to confirm that the new scrub pad is the best cost-effective option. Other projects however may be as complex as introducing a new produce (fruits & vegetables) safety system that includes a pathogen kill-step, instead of the regular cold water rinse. This will provide an extra layer of produce safety at the retail level, in case the system fails at the processing plant facility level, for instance, in the case ofthe multistate Listeria outbreak involving Cantaloupes from Jensen Farms, Colorado in 2011.

Another new initiative could be working with suppliers to validate a new method for detecting bone fragments and physical contamination of boneless poultry meat. Revamping the automated dish-washing room to improve food code compliance is a multifaceted project that requires a lot of resources and planning for a successful testing and evaluation.

Testing and evaluation milestones

A systematic approach is required to properly test and evaluate new FSQA products or services before a chain-wide roll-out is authorized by management. Depending on whether we are looking to introduce a new product or service into the system, some of the testing and evaluation milestones may include a combination of:

  • R&D to determine and evaluate options to resolve issue;
  • Review of options for industry best practices by FSQA team;
  • Cross-functional team evaluation by stakeholders to determine impact on key business functions, including a robust business analysis to determine cost implications;
  • Vendor verification to certify compliant business status;
  • Execution of a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) or Master Vendor Agreement (MVA) between corporate and vendor partner, to legally protect all parties;
  • Preliminary testing at the corporate Technical Center for proof of principle and to evaluate product safety and potential OSHA requirements at a controlled environment;
  • One store test to determine operational feasibility in an actual business environment;
  • Three to 10-store testing to evaluate operational dynamics in a larger number of stores;
  • Thirty to 60 store-market testing in different markets to carefully monitor usage and operational outcome and ensure compliance and expectations, and extrapolate results to mimic a national chain wide roll-out;
  • Performance survey of test stores, data collation, analysis and review of results, followed by management approval;
  • Chain-wide roll-out by a cross functional team representing all impacted areas of the business; and
  • Post-chain-wide roll-out follow-up to monitor usage and resolve any lingering issue, namely:
  • Adequate SOP training to reinforce proper use;
  • Vigorous marketing campaign to increase chain-wide usage and compliance;
  • Effective ordering and delivery logistics; and
  • Potential short term and long term quality issues.

Developing an FSQA project matrix template

Certainly, the need to initiate new FSQA projects will increase as the various parts of the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) come into full force. Since FSMA brings a new regulatory burden on the food industry, its full implementation will require new ways of doing business, and most likely will affect the overall cost. This calls for a smarter management strategy to keep costs down and customers happy. The massive number of legitimate but competing food safety projects literally begging for attention can be overwhelming for Managers, especially with resources always in short supply. With this scenario, it is critical for the Manager to develop an FSQA project matrix template that delineates the level of importance of each project based on overall risk assessment, cost-benefit ratio, regulatory food code requirements, and buy-in by stakeholders, including management and final end-users.

FSQA project implementation and recipe for success

Testing and evaluation can be an expensive venture considering the test duration, number of test stores involved and capacity utilization for test products. The good news however is that most vendors are willing to fund substantial portion or even the entire test. This is essentially because vendors want to demonstrate that their product works, are in compliance, certified and approved by relevant federal, state and local agencies, and fulfills all obligations as outlined in the statement of work. It is a win-win situation for both vendor and corporate because once a product is approved for chain wide roll-out, it can stay in use for several years until an upgraded becomes available. Thus, corporate funding commitment may be minimal and restricted only to staff time for overseeing the testing process. It is important to mention that training is a critical component at every stage of the testing process. Standard operating procedures, training video clips and on-site training are required to ensure that test product is used according to manufacturer’s instruction and in compliance with all relevant regulations. Due diligence and proper training of end-users including store managers, team members and associates will ensure that the roll-out of a food safety tool to mitigate an existing risk does not introduce a new risk in food service operations. An example is the introduction of a new disinfectant to comply with a new regulation that requires a Norovirus approved disinfectant grade chemical for cleaning playgrounds. The disinfectant however is not approved for food contact surfaces since it’s not a regular strength sanitizer.

Consequently, any inadvertent cross-usage on food contact surfaces may constitute a serious food safety risk. Similarly, an SOP training gap may result in higher risk if associates using yellow color-coded aprons for raw food processing cross-contaminates the RTE food board areas with raw chicken/beef contaminated aprons. For instance, the Costco Rotisserie Chicken recall of late 2013 appears to have been linked with Salmonella cross-contamination after the cooking process in the food preparation area. Thus, proper training on the useof food safety tools and processes is critical both during product testing and post-chain-wide roll-out, to accurately evaluate and monitor risk mitigation practices.

To enable success, food retail chains employ the services of third party consultants to assist in-house staff and bring project-specific subject matter expertise to the table for rigorous risk assessment and risk mitigation. This strategy will also assist in timely communication that support buy-in by senior management and other relevant stakeholders. In addition, the implementation of such projects will remain effective and efficient, freeing up valuable time for corporate staff to continue supporting the business in the most critical areas of providing seamless customer services. Most importantly, a third party working in concert with vendors and corporate staff will bring an unbiased product testing and evaluation standard that cannot be left entirely at the discretion of vendor partners.

Proper documentation is required at every stage to ensure that all potential confounding factors are considered and evaluated at every level. Surveys, feedback compilation and analysis by a third party will assist in building credibility for test data, and enable management have the right set of data to make an informed business decision. Some level of customization may be involved as issues raised by stakeholders are addressed during the testing process. Open communication is important to keep all parties in the loop and encourage honest discussion of issues and how best to resolve them in a cost-effective manner.


Testing of new FSQA tools and services is a cost saving process that helps Managers to completely resolve potential issues upfront before introducing products into the system. Improperly tested food safety products may lead to a breach in the system down the road. Ordinarily, the use of transparent plastic wrap to cover raw chicken pans during the thawing process is an excellent barrier against cross-contamination of food-contact and non-food contact surfaces with raw chicken juice. However, the transparent nature of the plastic wrap makes it extremely difficult to see a torn piece of plastic wrap inside the raw chicken pan. Due diligence during testing should identify such aberration and resolve it by customizing into easily identifiable yellow color coded plastic wrap. This test-mode corrective action will ensure that torn pieces of plastic wrap won’t get into food served to customers after chain-wide roll-out.

While proper testing, evaluation and roll-out of new FSQA products and services may be laborious, time consuming and somewhat expensive, it is still considered one of the industry best practices that supports the delivery of safe quality food to customers and protects the business brand. Overall, it benefits businesses in the long run to budget enough resources for this very important business function, instead of postponing or scrapping risk mitigation programs until crisis situation that may hurt customers, business brand and undermine return-on-investment.