November, 1996

Fruits of Thought

Training Is Not Enough

A few weeks ago, a television report aired in the Seattle area. The television station had pulled samples of fresh-cut melons from a variety of local grocery operations and had them tested in light of food safety concerns. Among the findings: Some samples contained relatively high levels of E. coli bacteria, and the program reported that the products were capable of making people sick.

This was not the first report of this type and it won’t be the last. There are many problems with fresh-cut produce as well as all kinds of issues regarding possible contamination. The high sugar content of fruit, for example, makes it an ideal breeding ground for the growth of bacteria; certainly a yellow light of caution on the road to fresh-cut fruit.

Of course, fresh-cut fruit is not new. It has been done mostly at store level, for as long as most can remember. In fact, the Seattle incident was not an indictment of any new source-based fresh-cut industry because the appearance, at least, is that the fruit in question was cut at the store level.

Many industry members hear stories like this and let out a big hrrmph. They point out, accurately, that stores have cut fruit forever and then claim that “no one has ever gotten sick.” Aye, but there’s the rub. We don’t really know that.

The whole issue of food safety and food-borne illness is very complicated. Have you ever gotten the “24 hour flu”? Well, there is no such thing. In all probability, you had some variant of food poising.

Food poisoning happens all the time. It is not widely recognized for several reasons. First, unless one is particularly vulnerable due to infancy, advanced age or a compromised immune system, people rarely die from food poisoning of this type. Individuals get sick… then they get better and go on with their lives. Second, a very large percentage of the cases of food poisoning could be traced to home-cooked meals. Few people have any desire to prove Mom’s culpability in getting them sick. Third, and perhaps most important, food poisoning is difficult to trace except in the case of batch-prepared foods.

Most of the time, though, that isn’t the case. Let us say an associate decides to cut a blemished melon. Perhaps the associate forgets to wash it first, or perhaps the blemish has already let in some bacteria, or maybe the associate just forgets to wash his hands. In any case, he makes two half melons, covers them in plastic and puts them out for sale. Those two half melons might each make someone ill and, in fact, that illness is unlikely to be ever traced back to that melon or that store.

So, what this means is that the industry, and retailers especially, should not be so confident that, just because we’ve done something for a long time, it is a fine practice. Very possibly, we’ve been causing illness the source of which simply hasn’t been clearly identified.

The truth is that produce department employees are far less conscious than those in many other perishable departments in the store when it comes to food safety and sanitation. The bulk of the product comes in as a whole item — apples, potatoes, whatever — and is put on the shelf. Even the source-packed pre-cuts are just put on the shelf. Yet grafted onto this culture there is a little “food processing facility” to cut melons and so forth. Most produce employees are simply not in the mind-set to think about whether the tubs the produce is stored in are sanitary or whether the knife holder is dirty. It is not at all uncommon for produce associates to be working with, say, root vegetables and then, in a rush, go to cut some melons and not wash their hands.

Of course, many of the problems start even earlier than that. It is still commonplace for associates to use melons with holes in them or those covered with mold for fresh-cut fruit. Oh, sure, virtually every chain has rules against this, but the rules are widely ignored. In fact, worse than ignored, they’re often winked at.

I’ve never heard of a chain firing a manager because his melon shrink is too low. Yet, of course, the reason the melon shrink is so low is because the stores cut up the damaged melons and sell them.

It’s an old story, and it is why businesspeople have to make sure their incentive structures are in line with their real objectives. There is no supermarket in America that wants to be featured on television with a reporter saying that the cut fruit was dangerous.

The typical response to this threat, though, cannot be simply to launch a new training program. Telling people to wash their hands, creating check-lists and ensuring cold-chain integrity is all well and good. But, that is not enough. More than anything else, financial incentives have to be set up so that associates and managers both perceive that they will, personally, be compensated and advanced, at least in part, based on their effectiveness at advancing sanitation and food safety interests. If a chain gives speeches about food safety, but pays bonuses because shrink is down — you can be sure that the chain’s employees will be cutting up damaged melons.  pb