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Industry Innovation

Food Safety in Convenience Stores

Are Retailers Up to the Challenges of Food Safety in Expanding Markets?

food workers practicing safety

or decades, the food and beverage industry has been plagued with many health and safety issues, leading to some of the biggest chains shutting down.   A recent example would be Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. which was fined $25 million to resolve criminal charges related to foodborne illness outbreaks from 2015 through 2018 that affected approximately 1100 people.  Fortunately, Chipotle survived the backlash that it received from its customers.  Still, despite that, the issue of food-borne illness will always remain in the minds of their consumers.  One of the prime reasons that people shop from a convenience store or c-store, in short, is because of, well, the convenience.  However, this does not mean that they can provide substandard quality, and the health risk of food in c-stores is a definite concern.

food worker practicing safety

Thanks to the pandemic, the c-store industry has already taken an enormous step forward by going digital.  Since c-stores are currently one the only grocery store options for people in certain regions, these stores have become the one-stop shop for many locals.  Especially during the beginning of the pandemic, where there were long lines for groceries and limited food and food options available.  From fresh produce to frozen pizzas to a freshly cooked meal, they have it all!  But because of this increase in shopping at c-stores, there are rising concerns about the quality of food they provide.

This is precisely why owners need to ensure that they are following c-store food safety guidelines throughout the process to prevent any mishaps.  Let’s break this down.

Why is c-store food safety a priority?

C-stores have come into the spotlight only recently, with many of them going online to keep up with the needs of their consumers.  Previously, they were meant to be a provision store where you go and buy your produce, but with many of them coming into the online foodservice space, the service landscape has changed ever since.  With that, it brings along many other food safety challenges in retail.

Now that c-stores are producing fresh food within these stores, they must follow the required governmental and general guidelines. Food safety has never been a joking matter because of the dire consequences for the consumer.  Unfortunately, health risks regarding food in c-stores have been the bane of many foodservice companies, and it’s one of the easiest ways to lose credibility

Just think of a time you’ve gone on to a food delivery app and see a negative review by a past customer.  While missing items and prices are a different issue altogether, if there are issues with food quality with potential health risks of food, then there’s no way you’re going to shop from them.  Right?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infectious organisms like Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus are some of the deadliest food microbes out there because of the long-lasting impact on those affected.  Many governmental organizations have begun monitoring these safety standards even in smaller stores to prevent outbreaks.  In the case that anybody violates c-store food safety standards, they could find themselves in difficult circumstances.

What are the food safety challenges in retail?

We’ve discussed what can happen when the health risks of food in c-stores are not accounted for but let’s look at what challenges they could face.  There are many safety concerns that c-store owners need to be aware of, and we’ll list some of them below:

  • Maintaining cleanliness:  In the c-store food safety industry, there is no excuse for a dirty space.  Especially on contact surfaces, it’s essential to ensure that they’re cleaned regularly to avoid microbial growth and pest attraction.  It also gives an excellent impression to your customers.
  • Temperature maintenance:  We all know that the colder the food, the higher the chance of spoilt.  That’s because we would never know if it is spoilt, which is one of the main reasons we heat our food.  This is unavoidable in items such as cold salads, hummus, etc.  It is also vital to maintain frozen items at particular temperatures so that they don’t go bad.  Cooling appliances must be properly monitored, maintained and kept in good working order.
  • Handwashing:  It’s a vital issue in c-store food safety and, more often than not, one of the most ignored ones too.  Employees and food handlers must wash their hands before handling the food or risk the contamination of food.  It would not bode well for them or their customers. Remember Typhoid Mary?
  • Sanitization:  This is one of the biggest food safety challenges in retail.  This is because employees don’t tend to look at the packaging to ensure that they’re using the correct concentrations of the disinfectant.  They just mix it based on ‘their knowledge’ and carry on with their day.  But, ideally, they’re required to look at the given instructions and dilute the disinfectant based on that.
  • Food packaging: Food always has to be packaged in a certain way to prevent any dust, moisture, or microbes from growing in them.  It’s also one of the sources of significant health risks of food in c-stores!  Employees always need to be on the lookout for canned items that are deformed, vacuum-sealed items pierced, or any other packaging irregularities.

How has COVID-19 impacted c-store food safety?

One of the biggest concerns when the pandemic hit, was whether or not it was a food-borne disease and, if so, what can be done to manage it.  Eventually, the WHO gave an official declaration that it was not food-borne.  That being said, there were two colossal food safety challenges in retail during the time.  The first one is that as most of the c-stores had shut down due to the lockdown, there was no proper maintenance of those stores during the time.  This resulted in enormous losses and eventual shutdown due to lack of business.  

The other problem was that people switched to digital ordering, which means that anything and everything became available online.  In these cases, the customers were not sure of the quality they would receive and whether or not employees are mindful of c-store food safety guidelines.  Those concerns were put to rest after they took the risk of ordering from such places.  From the health perspective, going to the grocery store in itself potentially risky, but now, even the pandemic has bred behaviors that are here to stay.  For example, people are careful about being too close to each other or preferring to shop online.

How can c-store food safety be implemented?

There are several ways in which the health risks of food in c-stores can be eliminated. Of course, the first step in the process is the development of a comprehensive food safety plan.  This plan has to be fully integrated into business operations.  It involves simple practices such as labeling items, maintaining the temperature of the food items, preventing cross-contamination, maintaining employee hygiene, and the like.  

Labeling items is critical in any c-store, especially with the name of the item and its expiration date.  It tells the user that what they’re consuming as well as the intended product’s expiration date.  Temperature monitoring and maintenance is a critical practice in ensuring that the food meets safety requirements.  Employees must be trained on which food items need to be held at which temperatures, and in the case that they’re not at the ideal temperature, what must be done.  Cross-contamination can be prevented by ensuring that raw and cooked foods are not in the same space and maintain proper hygiene practices.  This also involves storing chemicals and disinfectants in places away from food storage and practicing regular handwashing after handling different items.  

Food safety challenges in retail can be mitigated by using automated systems that track the food and c-store food equipment such that it’s easier to identify and correct problems as they develop.  These systems also ensure that if something untoward does happen, the product can be recalled.

What is the final takeaway?

All in all, c-store food safety is one of the most critical ways in which a brand can build up its presence in a region.  If they tend to fail in this regard, there is a likelihood that the business may not survive.  Employees and owners must be trained in the SOPs given by the government and product manufacturers, which is the best way of mitigating any food safety challenges in retail.

February 21, 2024