By Gina (Nicholson) Kramer
Those delicious fruit smoothies your store sells to health-conscious customers may be popular. But they may not be safe.
Several modern food trends – including the smoothie craze – have the potential to create food safety issues during the coming year. Convenience store managers and employees must recognize possible problems and prepare to take the necessary precautions to prevent foodborne illness.
About those smoothies…
The food safety issue with smoothies is the addition of raw frozen produce that was never intended for consumption without thorough cooking. Stores offering smoothies on their menu often add frozen fruits and vegetables – such as raw spinach – to their smoothies without determining whether the foods are ready-to-eat (RTE).
In 2016, the food industry witnessed a large-scale voluntary recall of 350 frozen foods marketed under 42 brand names after eight people became sick and two died from foodborne illness. As a result, the frozen food industry has taken steps to change its food safety standards for this category. In the meantime, however, convenience stores must educate employees about RTE foods and what products are safe to mix into smoothies.
Diet fad or health requirement
Books, social and broadcast media have jumped on the bandwagon to promote gluten-free (GF) foods as the newest consumer diet trend. Some customers choose gluten-free products because they perceive them as healthier. Customers who have Celiac disease must consume gluten-free foods to avoid the risk damaging their small intestine.
As a result, customers must feel confident that foods labeled as gluten-free meet FDA standards for gluten content. According to the FDA, foods may be labeled gluten-free if they are inherently GF or contain less than 20 ppm of gluten.
Consumers with gluten sensitivity or allergies, unfortunately, are generally the ones who evaluate the GF claims stores and restaurants make. In one instance, a store manager “just picked some items” to add to the menu after a vendor related the popularity of GF products among consumers. Half of the items on the menu were labeled as GF to boost their appeal.
Several weeks later, the health department received a customer complaint about foods incorrectly labeled as GF at the location. The incident resulted in the store removing the GF reference from items that contained gluten. Store management also learned about FDA guidelines for GF and the possible legal ramifications for promoting products as GF that contain gluten. Convenience stores must follow all FDA standards for promoting foods as GF.
Meeting vegan needs
Convenience stores are witnessing a growing number of vegans and vegetarians among their customers. A vegan does not eat or use animal products, whereas a vegetarian does not consume meat but may eat dairy products and eggs.
Some consumers choose a vegan diet as a lifestyle preference while others, who are allergic to dairy or eggs, may use vegan criteria as a way to navigate menu and food choices. They understand the potential for a life-or-death situation if they consume a food containing dairy or eggs that triggers an allergic reaction.
The parents of a girl with a dairy allergy ordered a vegan milkshake and confirmed with store employees that the milkshake contained absolutely no dairy. When the child began to drink the shake, she experienced an almost immediate allergic reaction that required emergency room treatment.
An investigation followed and found that while the shake itself was dairy-free, the store did not have a designated vegan shake blender. The blender that employees used to mix the shake had not been properly cleaned, which resulted in the shake containing trace amounts of dairy protein.
Educating employees about veganism and the steps necessary to prevent allergic reactions among customers with food allergies is essential.
Local foods gaining popularity
Those yummy cookies near your cash register are an excellent impulse Item. But, are they safe? Did the woman who operates an in-home bakery down the street or the neighbor who supplies your store with tomatoes follow proper food safety practices?
Many consumers perceive locally-grown and -processed foods as fresher, safer, healthier, better for the environment and better for the local economy than foods from large agribusiness companies. The safety aspect, however, may be questioned if your store has not implemented a supplier approval program for local producers and processors.
An approved supplier program requires every supplier to implement accepted food safety practices during every step of the growing, harvesting, processing and distribution process. The program also helps with traceability when investigators must track a food to its source during a foodborne illness event.
One of the worst Listeria outbreaks in recent years occurred when consumers ate contaminated cantaloupe supplied by a large Colorado farm. Thirty-three people died during the outbreak and inspectors tracked the potential bacteria source to a dump truck used to carry discarded melons to a cattle lot. The truck possibly transported Listeria bacteria from the cattle lot to the melon packing area. Inspectors also found pools of water in packing area walkways and along drains, which could provide breeding grounds for bacteria.
Cookie dough scoops
The hottest snack food flavor trend is serving scoops of cookie dough as an alternative to ice cream. Raw cookie dough scoops are popping up on many convenience store menus.
Food safety experts have always warned against eating raw cookie dough because of the possibility of contracting Salmonella from raw eggs. In 2016, however, an E. coli outbreak was traced to flour produced at a facility in Missouri. All of the people impacted confirmed they had tasted raw dough or batter containing the flour a week earlier.
If your store is adding raw cookie dough to the menu, the food product must be made with pasteurized eggs and heat-treated flour as ingredients. This precaution, and other food safety practices, will help keep your customers safe during the coming year.
Gina (Nicholson) Kramer is the managing partner at Savor Safe Food. She can be reached at [email protected].