Baker issued a recall of its Baker Farms, Kroger, & SEG Grocers brand names of kale following a customer notification of Listeria monocytogenes contamination. The 1-lb plastic bags of kale have best buy dates of 09-18-2021 and were distributed to retail stores in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Caroline, New York and Virginia. Thus far no consumers have reported illness.
As the popularity of home delivery services for food (i.e., online grocery shopping, prepared meals from restaurants, meal kits) continues to gain traction, the industry has been grappling with clear-cut guidance on how to ensure food safety during what is known as the “last mile” of delivery to the consumer. For example, how do third-party delivery services address concerns such as maintaining the right temperature of food during transit? How are allergen risks controlled? Do the people who deliver the food undergo any food safety training?
“It’s kind of a wild west out there,” said Donald Schaffner, Ph.D., professor at Rutgers University during a panel discussion on the topic of home food delivery at the IAFP annual meeting last week in Louisville, Kentucky.
In April, Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, M.D. and Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas acknowledged that there are food safety challenges presented by “evolving business models” such as e-commerce, and stated that the agency will be looking at ways to work with federal, state and local stakeholders to address the issues. During the IAFP panel, food safety professionals from Amazon, Uber Eats, The Kroger Company and FSIS shed some light on how their respective organizations are handling the food safety risks associated with home delivery.
Training the People Who Deliver Your Food
The overarching consensus among panelists was that there is not a one-size-fits all approach to training the people who deliver food to the consumer, because there are so many different business models out there. The key to developing successful training will be to first understand the risks associated with each of those different models.
“Everyone needs training, but we don’t want to over-engineering it—not everyone needs ServeSafe training,” said Schaffner. For example, training the person who is simply putting food in the car and delivering it to an address should be different from the training necessary for an employee selecting food in the grocery store versus the warehouse employee packing food. “Figuring out the right-size training and what kind is currently available is one of the things that we’re trying to figure out on the [Conference for Food Protection] committee.” (Note, the Conference for Food Protection committee is developing guidance that addresses home food delivery.) Schaffner indicated that training surrounding time and temperature, allergens and product tampering are important considerations.
Howard Popoola, vice president, corporate food technology and regulatory compliance at The Kroger Company provided the retailer perspective. “Our challenge is multiple in nature,” he said, emphasizing that stores try to keep labor at a minimum. Designing training for workers who are getting a $.25-per-hour raise presents a different hurdle. “What we’re doing in the store today is something we’ve never done before, and [we’re] asking individuals to do things they’ve never done before,” said Popoola. “The training we’ve done before is slowly becoming obsolete.” He said that The Kroger Company is evaluating its current basic food safety training and is looking at building on the segments of its stores that are involved in picking, packing and preparing food—especially the fresh items that are more susceptible to potential microbial contamination.
The Allergen Risk
A question was raised about whether delivery services use the same bags over and over, introducing the potential for cross-contamination. As part of its restaurant community guidelines, UberEats encourages restaurants to put food in tamper-resistant packaging. According to Joseph Navin, senior manager of global safety at the company, in order to reduce the possibility of cross contamination, all food should be placed in a bag before it is put in the insulated bag for transport. UberEats also has guidelines for how those bags should be cleaned. Further addressing the allergen risk: “How do we optimize the way that consumers can disclose that they have a food allergy? We don’t want to have food allergies going in the same free form text [box] that says ‘send extra napkins’,” said Navin. He added that UberEats is developing ways in which dealing with allergens is more conspicuous for restaurants when their employees are preparing food.
Allison Jennings, director food safety and compliance North America at Amazon, said the company has experimented with multiple types of packaging, but there isn’t one perfect set of variables and inputs. Amazon currently uses single-use bags for delivery to mitigate risks with re-cleaning, she said.
As a best practice, integrating relevant information from consumer complaints should become part of a company’s food safety program, said Schaffner. An important role of technology will be its ability to collect feedback that allows companies to generate actionable insights related to food safety, identify any gaps, strengthen controls and be able to develop ways to mitigate risks, said Navin. Amazon currently monitors customer feedback using automatic detection for keywords related to food safety and quality that arrives via the phone, online chats with customer service and social media outlets. When necessary, the method can prompt an investigation, look for trends or help engage in continuous improvement processes. “We are constantly looking for any potential blind spots with our processes,” said Jennings. “We also mystery shop ourselves and make sure we’re meeting our requirements.”
The most common consumer complaints reported among the panelists were not related to food safety, but rather food quality—the product was crushed, didn’t look appealing, etc. “Since we rely on third party partners, we’ve walked through with them on those processes…[and are] challenging our third party partners on who they hire to deliver food, training, etc. and taking caution on delivering food,” said Popoola.
Schaffner said common complaints noted during a study conducted by Rutgers University and Tennessee State University were the following: The product was received out of temperature control; there was evidence of packages leaking (meat, poultry, and fish); a lack of cooking directions; and no mechanism to provide feedback to the company if you have a complaint.
According to Navin, among the top complaints that UberEats receives is missing food or a replacement for items that might be out of stock.
In general, recalls in the home delivery segment would apply to products that are received via online grocery shopping services. Since consumers must sign up for these services by providing either an email or phone number, companies can contact customers in the event of a recall. For example, Amazon requires an email account, so it directly emails customers when there is recall or known safety risk associated with a product purchased. Similarly, when a customer uses a loyalty card at a grocery store such as Kroger, the retailer can use its robocall system to notify customers if they purchased an item that is subject to a recall or is associated with an outbreak.
The Cincinnati-based supermarket chain Kroger has entered into a pilot partnership with Alibaba’s Tmall Global platform to sell its “Our Brands” products online to consumers in China. This platform is China’s largest business-to-consumer marketplace, and helps retailers that don’t have physical operations in the country build virtual storefronts and send products to China.
The pilot will start with Kroger’s Simple Truth products, which are positioned as natural and organic, and are also the second-largest brand sold in Kroger stores. This year alone the brand generated more than $2 billion in sales, earning it the title of largest natural and organic brand in the United States, according to Kroger.
“Kroger is the world’s third largest retailer by revenue–$122.7 billion in sales in 2017,” said Yael Cosset, chief digital officer at Kroger in a news release. “We are creating the grocery retail model of the future by focusing on digital and technology.”
The partnership also supports the company’s “Restock Kroger” pillars of redefining the grocery customer experience by elevating “Our Brands” and creating customer and shareholder value through promoting top line growth via alternative revenue streams.
Rumor has it that Target and Kroger are talking about a merger. Citing unnamed sources, an article by Fast Company reports that the companies started discussing the prospect last summer, as the deal would be a boost to Target’s grocery business, while Kroger would reap the benefits of more merchandise and e-commerce.
However, CNBC is reporting that the two companies are not in talks to merge but rather are discussing Target’s acquisition of Shipt, a same-day delivery company, which occurred in December.
Find the fake news: This article is part of the Food Safety Tech April Fool’s edition. To find out which stories are fake and which are real, log onto our site on Monday afternoon (April 2) and click on each story for the update.You can also sound off in the comments section.
Think this is the fake news? Wrong! Here’s our April Fool’s story.
It’s that time of year again: A time when Americans, both young and old, enjoy decorating pumpkins, dressing up in outrageous costumes, visiting houses haunted with ghosts and goblins, and consuming way too much sugar. And then there’s the classic favorite, the caramel apple. I’ve never been a huge fan of the sticky treat, but many Americans just can’t get enough it.
This year’s Food Safety Consortium conference features “Preventing Listeria Workshop: A Practical Workshop on Food Safety Controls” on Tuesday, November 17. REGISTER HERE. Last year caramel apples received a huge amount of negative press as a result of a deadly Listeria outbreak that was traced back to prepackaged caramel apples from Bidart Bros (Bakersfield, CA). In February of this year, the CDC closed its investigation, and provided the final stats: 7 dead and 34 hospitalizations throughout 12 states.
Now here we are, at the height of the season for apples and sweet treats, and concerns over Listeria in caramel apples are back in the media. The good news is that industry is proceeding with caution. The Wall Street Journal reports that Kroger Co. is taking unrefrigerated caramel apples off its store shelves following a recent study that cited a higher likelihood of Listeria growth on the products when at room temperature versus under refrigeration. Published by the American Society of Microbiology, the study, “Growth of Listeria monocytogenes within a Caramel-Coated Apple Microenvironment”, found that “insertion of a stick into the apple accelerates the transfer of juice from the interior of the apple to its surface, creating a microenvironment at the apple-caramel interface where L. monocytogenes can rapidly grow to levels sufficient to cause disease when stored at room temperature”. The researchers also advise that consumers purchase refrigerated apples or eat them fresh.
Although representatives from Kroger said they think the risk of Listeria contamination is minimal, they decided to take a cautionary approach. It’s reassuring to see companies step up and take proactive tactics to mitigating risks, especially when it involves protecting consumers against another potentially deadly outbreak.
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