“Food safety and protecting public health is not a competitive advantage.”
I’ve heard those words from Dr. Jay Ellingson, chief scientific officer at La Crosse, Wisconsin-based Kwik Trip, for several years.
Before, I would have thought that if a convenience retailer isn’t investing in food safety—and thus failing to protect its customers and employees—and the competitor down the street is, the retailer doing the right thing is “winning.”
Yes, but also no. Making sure food safety behaviors are prioritized throughout an organization is how we elevate our entire industry—and that’s the reason why NACS created the Food Safety Forum in 2022 and had its second Food Safety Forum in 2023.
If you’re training people for knowledge, stop. Train people to impact their behaviors.”
“We all have a responsibility to move our industry in the right direction by working together and helping our peers get better at reducing their risk and protecting their brands,” said Ellingson, who moderated the 2022 and 2023 Forums.
So why such an emphasis on food safety? Why a full-day event that focuses on this topic? First, follow the data: Foodservice is one of the fastest growing c-store segments, with foodservice representing 25.6% of inside sales and 36.1% of inside gross margin in 2022, according to the NACS State of the Industry Report® of 2022 data.
Second, consider the evolution of the foodservice profession. Today’s foodservice programs are more sophisticated—prepared food being 67% of all foodservice sales in 2022—and more labor intensive than ever, making employee training a non-negotiable.
Third is public perception. “Gas station food” may not get the bad rap it used to, but a foodborne illness outbreak that was mishandled or preventable, whether it came from a single c-store or a larger chain, would exacerbate any remaining stigma across the entire industry.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Ellingson, noting that this Benjamin Franklin quotation is a good reminder that preventing food safety disasters is better than dealing with them after they happen.
You don’t have to be a large retail chain to establish and maintain a food safety plan, which should include goals that are well communicated throughout the organization. For Kwik Trip, goal No. 1 is Protect Public Health. Goal No. 2 is Protect Our Brand. Combined, those two goals help the company manage and mitigate risk.
A foodborne illness outbreak can have significant, and even deadly, consequences. Dr. Ben Chapman, professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, shared an example of how improper cleaning of a milkshake machine at a Frugals restaurant in Tacoma, Washington, caused a foodborne listeriosis outbreak linked to six hospitalizations and three deaths.
“Listeria is one of those pathogens that convenience stores need to be worried about,” said Chapman, noting that Listeria is extremely dangerous to individuals who are immunocompromised or pregnant.
Going back to labor and training, foodservice equipment like a milkshake machine can have a user manual with 50-plus pages dedicated to cleaning and sanitizing.
“If it takes five different brushes to clean and sanitize this machine correctly, and the manufacturer says that should be done every night, it’s probably not happening on the correct frequency as the manufacturer’s directions,” Chapman said.
“If I think about an individual unit with so many different food safety details going on, and with labor concerns, there are steps that get missed, and this is the consequence,” he added.
Another risk: sick employees.
A 2022 norovirus outbreak linked to a pizza restaurant in Illinois found that 317 people were infected. According to the CDC, “the suspected food vehicle was salad” prepared by a food handler who did not wear gloves, who had vomited on November 22 and who worked November 21-23.
Pizza and salad, two main menu items at the restaurant linked to the outbreak, are also common hot and pre-packaged foods sold in convenience stores. “This is the kind of stuff that happens all too often—it’s about keeping [sick] staff out of the kitchen and it’s certainly about hand-washing and using gloves,” Chapman said.
“If I looked at your [convenience store] sector, norovirus would be the thing I’d worry about the most,” advised Chapman, adding that about 22 million cases of norovirus a year are linked to food in the United States. “So of the 48 million cases of foodborne illness a year, norovirus has a big chunk of that.”
We want the store employees and the frontline employees to understand what the risks are and to create a dialogue.”
What can retailers do to help manage risk within their workforce?
“My challenge to you is get to know your employees—understand their motivations and what they do,” suggested Chapman.
“Many of you do this, but for those who have not spent hours with staff watching what they do, I suggest you do. Spend time in kitchens,” he said. Ask questions. Figure out the challenges these workers face.
And finally, “Everyone within your system has to know the why. It’s not just how we do food safety or the knowledge of hand-washing—it’s the whys. … And if you’re training people for knowledge, stop. Train people to impact their behaviors. Train people to make them wash their hands more. Train people to make sure that they wear gloves. Train people to make sure that they use a thermometer at the right times,” said Chapman.
Decentralization: HQ to Stores
EG America has more than 1,600 stores. Casey’s has 2,500-plus stores. Wawa has 1,050 stores. All three companies manage sophisticated foodservice programs in multiple states that require complying with food safety regulations in multiple jurisdictions and adhering to a multitude of state and local health code regulations.
Food safety professionals within decentralized retail chains must ensure that what begins at corporate carries throughout the entire operation: from supply chain to production, to storage, distribution, and ultimately to retail and customers.
“We have a corporate office, but then we have stores everywhere. What we have to do as food safety professionals is translate what we’re doing in a corporate sense to each location when we’re not actively in that location,” said Jeremy Zenlea, director and head of health and safety at Westborough, Massachusetts-based EG America.
Zenlea explained that EG America’s food safety system is a three-step process: prediction, prevention and reaction. “We want to make sure that every policy and program we have, and anything we build, includes provisions for each of those steps. Reaction is not a good one, but sometimes we do have to react. Prediction is where you get the best bang for your buck because you lessen the reaction.”
Casey’s, which operates stores in 18 states (the chain recently acquired W. Douglass Distributing’s 22 Lone Star Food Stores in Texas), has three pillars within its Food Safety & Quality Assurance Department: retail, distribution and transportation, and supply chain.
“Everything we do from the supply chain side across our transportation distribution network impacts our retail stores. If we don’t get it right in one of those other pillars, it’s going to impact retail,” said Amy Costello, director of food safety and quality assurance at Casey’s.
“It’s our team members on the front lines who are executing on food safety every day—food safety is all of our responsibility and everyone plays an important role, from frontline team members in the stores to the distribution centers and to all of our leaders,” she said.
Wawa operates stores in six states and has a four-part food safety framework designed to keep its food safety programs efficient and effective.
First in the framework is standards, which are designed to meet regulatory compliance and reduce and mitigate risk. Next is education and behaviors, which includes Wawa’s food safety culture journey to ensure that food safety is constantly top of mind. Recognition celebrates and recognizes individuals and team achievements. Lastly is measuring and evaluating performance to understand what is and is not working.
“We have daily deliveries to stores through our fresh channels and food safety has to play a significant role in all of it,” said Nancy Wilson, director of quality assurance, risk management and safety at Media, Pennsylvania-based Wawa Inc.
Food Safety Culture
“Food safety culture is the idea that everybody practices, believes and wholeheartedly understands what makes food safe and how to keep food safe,” said Zenlea in the May issue of NACS Magazine, adding that it’s also a philosophy:
“It’s saying that I am going to do things that are not necessarily more efficient, and not necessarily more cost effective. … A culture of food safety is not just the health and safety team understanding where the risks are; we want the store employees and the frontline employees to understand what the risks are and to create a dialogue and reach back out so that they’re practicing food safety.”
Not every company will embrace food safety culture in the same manner, and some will find themselves more mature in their journeys than others. The goal, however, is shared: protect public health. (Read “Modeling a Food Safety Culture” in the July 2021 issue of NACS Magazine.)
Wawa is on a food safety culture journey of “embedding the behaviors we want to see on a day-to-day basis in what our associates are doing,” said Wilson, noting that it’s not about preparing for an audit when a regulatory agency walks through the door. It’s about making sure everyone is empowered to do the right things for the right reasons at all times, that they know what they need to do—and want to do it.
What keeps me up at night is the idea of an opportunity that I missed to have an impact.”
“It starts with Wawa’s values,” Wison said. “We link [food safety] behaviors and what we’re looking for to some of the key values within our company.” Wawa’s food safety culture journey is top down, she continued, noting that what happens at the leadership level must make its way to the store level.
“I present to our board on an annual basis how we’re doing from a food safety standpoint. I get asked tough questions that I encourage them to ask because I want them to challenge us,” Wilson said.
At Casey’s, food safety culture starts with establishing priorities.
“It’s easy to say we’re making [food safety culture] a priority, but what we’re really looking at is the behavior, the attitude, and tying it back to our company’s values,” said Costello, who, like Wilson, reports to the board with regular cadence.
“Where I’ve seen the growth and the support is at the leadership level across the business units we support,” said Costello, noting that food safety is not about checking a box. “The business leaders are asking the food safety questions today, and we’re there to support them and provide guidance.”
Food Safety Is an Investment in People
From the aftershocks of a global pandemic to record-high inflation, hiring, training and retaining employees continues to keep retailers up at night.
Overall convenience industry turnover was 130% for full-time and 152.3% for part-time employees in 2022, according to the NACS State of the Industry Compensation Report® of 2022 Data, and the average cost to hire was $1,196 for full-time and $1,022 for part-time employees.
“Food safety is an investment in your colleagues, your team members and your customers,” said Zenlea. “And that investment is significant when you’re talking about thousands of team members. We want to be sure that by investing in training and procedures, that investment translates into safe food sold to consumers.”
Costello noted turnover has “a direct correlation on how well things are executed at the store level or in the distribution centers.” She echoed Chapman’s suggestion that one way to keep turnover at bay is to get to know your teams.
“A big piece is understanding who your team members are, what they want, what makes them happy in their role and what keeps them engaged,” she said, adding that store leaders set the tone for their stores.
“Then there’s a huge focus on making the right choice the easy choice, so building the food safety aspects of our program into our processes and into our policies in a way that is accessible to the team members,” said Costello. “If we’re not making it simple to execute, it’s not going to happen.”
Similar to Casey’s, Wawa has embedded food safety into all of its standard operating procedures in its stores. “Whether we want to blame it on Covid or not, turnover and talent in general has been a big challenge. We’re taking a step back and reevaluating the skill sets of our teams to see where they need additional training, additional support,” said Wilson.
Wilson said that Wawa’s data shows that stores with a strong management team perform better. “From a food safety standpoint, we’re making a lot of investments at the management level,” she said, noting that the company has a current standard of having at least two people in the store complete food safety manager certification training, unless the store is in a jurisdiction that requires even more.
Going forward, the top four managers in every store across the entire chain will be certified in food safety manager training. “And that’s a training we do in-house. We follow standard testing for that certification and doing the training in-house allows us to customize the training to be Wawa specific. … It is a significant investment but an investment that is absolutely worth making because of the impact that it has on food safety,” said Wilson.
At Wawa, Wilson noted that every associate in the company gets food safety basic training. Then, depending on their role, some may receive more customized training. “If you work in foodservice, you’re going to get a lot more food safety training than someone who’s working at the register.” The hope is also that investing in training will help stores see a drop in turnover.
No Stone Left Unturned
The stark reality is that it would be nearly impossible to claim an organization could be 100% risk-free. But that doesn’t mean the food safety professionals who participated in the NACS Food Safety Forum ever strive for less than perfection—not when public health is at stake.
“What keeps me up at night is the idea of an opportunity that I missed to have an impact,” said Costello. “Our team is all about taking every opportunity to share our message—if we talk to the accounting team, we’re going to talk about food safety. If we talk to the transportation team or the drivers, we are sharing our message and talking about the why behind what we do,” she said.
Wilson echoed that what motivates her is making sure that the company is doing all the right things to try and mitigate risk as best as it can. “I want to protect our brand, and I also don’t want to see anyone become ill from the food that we’re serving,” she said.
Food safety and protecting public health is a shared responsibility. NACS and the retailers quoted in this article welcome the opportunity to bring together convenience retail food safety and foodservice professionals.
Reach out to Dr. Jay Ellingson at [email protected] for food safety questions and operational guidance in your stores, and Chrissy Blasinsky at [email protected] to find out how you can engage in conversations with your food safety peers.
To participate in the 2024 NACS Food Safety Forum, request to be notified at www.convenience.org/2024FSF.