It’s no easy task to keep food fresh and wholesome for consumers, but grocery store employees and food safety inspectors across the state rise to the challenge.
“The fast-paced work environment and staffing demands make it difficult to maintain consistency among our associates, to not only be familiar with the health codes, but to also observe them at all times,” says Arlie Watson Jr., store manager of Food City in Gatlinburg.
Grocers continuously strive to meet regulatory standards. At the Food City store where Watson works, online training sessions educate associates about health requirements and best practices, while a mandatory reporting system makes sure employees aren’t preparing and serving food if they show symptoms of illnesses that could affect public health. A third-party company conducts audits and tracking programs, such as digital logs for ground beef, and keeps precise records for review. In recent years, Food City has developed special handling procedures for raw produce, including an antibacterial wash for bulk leafy greens and cut fruits and vegetables intended to be rinsed at home.
Working behind the scenes to ensure food safety, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) inspects 10,770 stores, manufacturers and warehouses once or twice a year or every 18 months, depending on the types of food prepared onsite. “It probably goes unnoticed that we are in as many places as we are, inspecting throughout the state,” says Nathan Hannah, one of the agency’s five regional food and dairy supervisors, noting a total of 14,550 completed inspections from July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2019.
What Inspectors Look For
So, what do food inspectors look for? Everything from knowledge of standards to anti-contamination and sanitation practices, to the cleanliness of the facility and employee health and hygiene practices, including hand-washing and how food is touched. One of the most common violations, says Hannah, who’s been inspecting stores for almost 20 years, is improper holding temperatures of food, including cooked items that are inadequately cooled for later use. “That tends to be something we see quite often,” he says.
TDA is also observing more early-detection efforts to spot contaminants in both plant- and animal-based foods. “Many manufacturing firms are conducting more in-house sampling and testing now as opposed to the past,” Hannah says. “Recalls may be initiated based upon the results of a firm’s in-house sampling or testing or, in some cases, based upon the results of one of our samples.”
Even though most Tennesseans may only hear about store inspections when the media spotlights an outbreak of bacteria or foodborne illness, the folks charged with keeping food safe take their jobs seriously year round. “Our department covers every level from food manufacturing to the retail food store. We have far-reaching responsibilities,” Hannah says. “Our primary goal is to protect public health by supporting a wholesome food supply.”
And as Watson points out, it takes a team to get the job done. “Ensuring food safety is a partnership,” he says. “Not only do the regulatory agencies conduct routine inspections of our facilities, but they also provide invaluable education to our associates and management teams. As retailers, it is our responsibility to continue to provide information and educate our customers. This team effort allows us to offer safe, high-quality products to our customers and their families.”