Supermarkets are struggling to stay on top of food-safety issues while customers demand more prepared foods than ever before.
It’s nice not having to cook dinner, and it’s especially nice when dinner can be purchased, ready and hot, from the same place as one’s groceries. This is why supermarkets are selling more prepared foods than ever before, and many have expanded their delis in recent years to accommodate the upsurge in business. Sushi, soups, salads, pizza, sandwiches, and chicken – all of these have become recent deli staples.
According to the Food Marketing Institute:
“Supermarket fresh prepared foods grew by an annual rate of 10.4 percent between 2006 and 2014 making it one of the highest performing segments in the entire food industry. While only 8 percent of responding supermarkets reported total store sales growth of more than 5 percent in 2014, 69 percent reported that same level of growth (or much higher) in their prepared foods department.”
Along with the impressive growth, however, have come increased food safety issues. As The Consumerist says, “This is a profitable business for grocery and big-box stores, but also leads to problems: serving ready-to-eat food means that they risk serving ready-to-eat pathogens, too.”
Indeed, the pathogens have made their appearance already on a number of occasions. The number of people getting sick from foodborne illness outbreaks (most commonly salmonella, followed by norovirus) linked to U.S. supermarkets has doubled between 2014 and 2015, say the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Whole Foods Market, Inc. was forced to shut down one of its food preparation plants after a dangerous strain of listeria was detected during a routine visit by FDA inspectors. A deep clean ensued, and now the plant has reopened with no further meat, poultry, or seafood processing. Costco had E. coli and salmonella outbreaks in the past year. One grocery co-op in Boise, Idaho, had a salmonella outbreak that sickened 300 people.
A big part of the problem is that these supermarket delis are very new to food preparation on the scale that’s now in demand. The Washington Post cites Paul Marra, a manager of food safety at Wegmans Food Markets: “Our stores have become mini restaurants and pubs. Prior to that, we basically sliced cold cuts and made a few salads.”
Supermarkets tend to have high staff turnover, making it hard to keep up with the food-handling training and ever-changing rules and regulations that are part of being in the restaurant industry.
“In New York state, nearly a third of the 15,600 violations at grocery stores in the past year involved prepared foods, according to an analysis of latest available state Agriculture Department statistics. Of those, 221 violations involved employees’ mishandling prepared food or handwashing.” (Washington Post)
While the industry works out its own solutions, it’s important to take care as a consumer. Avoid buying meat dishes (although that doesn’t solve the problem of cross-contamination). Observe the care being taken by employees and whether procedures appear to be followed. Consider less or non-processed food options as alternatives, i.e. Instead of buying cut-up pineapple, how about choosing a banana that you can peel yourself? A sealed container of hummus and crackers for snack?