Food safety means different things to different people—sanitation, temperature control, personal hygiene, quality assurance, regulations—but what it really boils down to is human behavior, says a Kroger food safety manager. Changing behavior starts at the top and must be “sold” to employees if food safety is to be embraced.
Last year’s passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act soon will bring sweeping changes to the food safety environment. Although specifics of the regulations being developed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are yet unknown, standards for the production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables will likely include preventative measures, tracking, and traceability.
Growers often feel overwhelmed by overlapping food safety regulations and multiple certification programs, but they are not alone in having to deal with various agencies and regulation, said Gina Nicholson, food safety and quality manager for the Kroger Corporation in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Kroger has 3,260 stores in 34 states, with 19 divisions, 16 store banners (grocery stores under a different name), and 700 convenience stores. Thirty-four distribution centers service Kroger stores, and the corporation owns 41 manufacturing facilities, such as milk and dairy plants and bakeries. Each state has its own retail health code that stores must follow that may or may not match federal regulations, Nicholson said.
While growers have a part in making sure their crops are produced in a safe and healthy manner, Kroger and other retailers also play a role in the safe handling of fruits and vegetables. Nicholson works with Kroger store management to help educate their employees about food safety.
Starts at the top
“At Kroger, we have to sell food safety to our employees,” said Nicholson, likening food safety to a mindset. “If we want to make sure our employees follow food safety regulations, we have to believe it ourselves and be a salesperson.
“Are we committed to selling food safety to our employers or converted?” she asked, explaining that “committed” means devoted to something, but “converted” means you put action into it.
“Conversion has to start at the top,” Nicholson said. Before 2008, Kroger’s mission statement was to sell only wholesome and safe food. But after an E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in their Columbus, Ohio, stores that hospitalized 11 people and put Kroger in the news for two weeks, the mission statement was changed to “we must be relentless about food safety in our stores.”
Nicholson, who spoke to grape growers during the Washington State Grape Society’s annual meeting in Grandview in November, is passionate about food safety and believes that all employers should be too. “Passion about food safety is contagious and should show in everything you do.”
She encourages growers to integrate food safety into every aspect of their business, educating all components about the importance of food safety. Even accountants need to have an understanding of its importance because funding might be needed to implement new training programs.
Communicating with your work force involves more than just putting up workplace posters, she said. Give employees the right tools, equipment, and time to comply with standardized practices. Develop practices that are simple and easy to follow, set clear expectations, and follow up with audits to ensure compliance. “If you can make the practices personal—that workers will follow at home—it’s more likely they’ll practice them at work.”
Employers can try to scare people into compliance, but they won’t accomplish long-term behavior changes, she said, adding that how employers communicate is important.
She also advocates including the food safety director in sales meetings to develop cross-categorical networks. Food safety departments are usually small in most companies, but participation in sales meetings can help all departments learn where food safety fits in.
“When it comes to selling food safety, you have to make an emotional connection and put a face on the issue,” she said, adding that 29 people died in the recent outbreak of listeria on cantaloupes from Colorado. “It’s not about the third-party audit. It’s about the face of food safety. It’s very important to remember why we’re doing what we’re doing.”