Listeriosis drives home need for food safety; grocers rely on manual, training

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TORONTO Grocery store owner Francois Bouchard keeps a BlackBerry with him that's set to go off whenever there's a food recall, and it's had him up in the predawn hours several times since the listeriosis outbreak came to light.

"My store's not open during the night, but let's just say I've woken up many a time in the last few weeks to - you know - 'What's this one about? Do we carry it? Don't we carry it?' and then you have to read through all the fine print," he explained from Ottawa, where he runs The Country Grocer.

Recall notices are issued by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and individual food manufacturers, and the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers also distributes them to its members.

As this summer's listeriosis outbreak - linked to ready-to-eat meats from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto - has illustrated food-borne illness can be deadly. On Friday, company CEO Michael McCain said bacteria embedded deep inside slicing equipment may be to blame.

It's sent a chill through the industry, and some consumers are thinking twice about stopping at the deli counter. And it might leave customers wondering about overall grocery store safety - how much the people behind the deli counter know about handling food, standards of cleanliness and other issues that will ensure, for instance, that the roasted chicken they're taking home for dinner will be safe to eat.

Bouchard is one of those on the front lines of the grocery industry who takes his safety responsibilities seriously.

He's helped develop a food safety manual sold by the grocers federation that came out last fall, and he's been involved in training sessions that took place last winter, and that will continue this fall across the country.

John Scott, president and CEO of the federation, which has about 3,900 members, says food safety is the number 1 concern of every food retailer.

"If you have an issue with food safety in your store, you've got a problem, so every food retailer is very vigilant on food safety," he said.

It was decided a few years ago that minimum standards were needed, he said, and a committee of independents and major retailers was struck to work on it with support from the federal government.

Some stores have standards that go beyond the protocol, he said, and the large chains have their own manuals and training procedures overseen by human resources departments.

The new grocers manual aimed at independents covers everything related to food safety - even those deli slicing machines.

"It would say in your deli, how often your ... slicing machine needs to be broken down and cleaned, how it needs to be cleaned, the process that needs to be used," Scott explained.

Other aspects include cleaning counters, taking product out of the counters at night and cleaning underneath them, the cleanliness of floors and windows, how to handle food and information on gloves and hairnets, he said.

In addition, it lays out requirements if an employee is sick with a communicable illness, such as hepatitis.

Scott said independent grocers can bring their staff to the two-day training seminars, and a food safety expert takes them through the manual.

"And then there's an open line to that food safety expert afterwards ... so if you have trouble with any aspect of it when you get back to your operation you can call that expert and they can help you out."

The manual is available in English and French and has been translated into Mandarin for Asian members in the Vancouver area, he said.

"If there's an owner who sees procedures being short-circuited in any way, I've seen more owners get more upset about that than about losing money over a mistake at the till, because food safety is your lifeblood," Scott said. "If you're not food safe, you're nothing."

Wolf Saxler, a manager in food safety for Toronto Public Health, said the city is responsible for inspecting close to 16,000 food premises, which includes all restaurants, and there might be 15 to 20 closures per year.

"I can't remember when we've closed a deli counter," he said. "I'd say most of the deli counters are pretty good because you have to remember, if their food is bad or they're dirty... people won't buy."

About 80 Toronto inspectors enforce the Ontario Food Premises Regulation, he said, but it's not enough.

"And then you get pulled off on things like the recall linked to listeria," he said. "For us, it's like an emergency. Everybody gets pulled off their regular work, and all they're doing is checking to make sure the recalled product is out, off sale."

As for deli meat slicers, he said there's no specific requirement from public health about frequency of cleaning.

"We cannot say this type of slicer, you must do every hour or every two hours, or at the end of the day," he said. "What we do when we inspect is that we check equipment just to see if there's gross contamination, if it looks like it hasn't been cleaned for a while."

"But most deli counters are cleaned at least daily. They're taken down and wiped down with a sanitizing solution."

Bouchard said his slicing machines are cleaned at regular intervals - every hour or every two hours, depending on traffic.

He said the temperature chain is key to food safety - ensuring that food coming in is on trucks that are at the right temperature, and getting it into the cooler or freezer promptly.

"And we do the same with hot foods," he said. "So hot foods coming out of the - let's say the barbecue rotisserie - going into the hot case has to maintain that ideal hot temperature at all times."

Food safety is also important at the cash, he said.

"They've got to make sure if there's chicken on the belt and for whatever reason it leaked, they've got to take the time to wash the belt down before the next customer puts their carrots or apples on the belt."

Bouchard said the recent recalls have "impacted greatly" on his deli sales, and he's had to come up with replacements - such as promoting store-cooked roast beef. Barbecued chicken has also been popular, he said, as people make chicken salads for their kids for lunch.

Discussions about listeriosis will undoubtedly become part of this fall's training sessions, he said.

But at least independent grocers have the training tools to ensure their facilities are safe.

"It's really up to every individual owner to go back to their store and apply it," he said.



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