Food is so easily available these days we take it for granted. We expect, without much consideration, that the food we buy in supermarkets and corner shops is safe to eat. Displayed on clean, brightly lit shelves and presented in attractive packaging, we rarely think about where its come from – or the journey it’s taken.
Neatly stacked aisles of food – bagged, boxed and bottled – provide little clue to the complexity of factors involved in ensuring the food we purchase is safe for consumption. An increasing amount of our food products is supplied through complex global supply chains. Every food item faces food safety risks making its way from farm, to distributor, to retailer – and finally, into consumer homes.
Many factors along the food supply chains can affect the health of consumers through food safety:
- From pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified crops on the farm, to contamination from pests;
- From handling practices at every point along the supply chain, to the ingredients of processed foods and the methods used to make them;
- From storage conditions and food packaging to labeling adequately, informing the consumer of safety and dietary considerations;
- And lastly, of course, the hygienic handling of products in the store.
Many types of technology, processes, materials along with food ingredients, go into producing the food products that end up in the shopping trolley. Small supermarkets see tens of thousands of products, larger superstores offer up to 90,000 products and every single item has to be sourced and handled safety to protect consumers. There are a myriad of ways food is presented to consumers; fruit and vegetables alone come loose, bagged, chopped or peeled – already presenting a multitude of opportunities where they can be compromised by food safety issues.
In the below listicle, we outline 5 main categories of food safety risk in supermarkets and grocery stores.
1. Employee hygiene
Across all businesses preparing or processing food one of the most common causes of food contamination is poor personal hygiene practices by staff. Hands, which can easily transfer bacteria from a contaminated surface to fresh food. Personal habits that are not acceptable around food preparation include:
- Touching the hair, face or parts of the body or clothing
- Working while ill with diarrhoea, vomiting or any infectious diseases
- Working with open wounds or skin infections
- Wearing watches or jewellery, as they can fall in the food
2. Raw foods
Raw foods can easily pick up bacteria and other contaminants along the path from farm to shelf.
- Raw meat, poultry, fish and shellfish can carry infectious diseases and pose a risk to shoppers if not handled or packaged properly.
- Products prepared and packaged in-store, such as cooked meats, cheeses or bakery products, need the same food safety practices required of a food processing factory or restaurant to protect consumers from food-borne infections.
- We may all handle lose apples, tomatoes, sweet peppers, etc to choose the best ones and contaminate those not selected.
- Products that are eaten raw and grow near the ground, such as celery, lettuce, and strawberries can easily pick up soil particles.
- You should wash fresh fruit and vegetables before eating to ensure any contamination from farm to store and in store, from fellow shoppers hands or coughs and sneezes, is safely removed.
Rodents not only gnaw packaging and eat food, they also leave a trail of contaminated surfaces along their runs from urine, droppings and greasy smudge marks from their fur, or dirt from their feet.
- Rats and mice are primarily attracted by accessible food and water and will then seek shelter nearby as they do not like to travel far in their daily foraging for food.
- Loading bays where food may be temporarily stored, or spilled, and garbage storage areas can attract rodents and provide points of entry into a building.
- There are many potential points of entry to a building, especially a large supermarket, which can be exacerbated due to poor construction and maintenance, such as cracks around doors and windows or in walls, vents, pipes, cabling, drains, doorways, windows, screens. Rodents, especially mice, only need a tiny gap to squeeze through and can gnaw away at the edges to enlarge them.
- If rats and mice can access a building they will be attracted by food in storage and on display, as well as food spills and waste left or stored inappropriately.
House flies, drain flies, flesh flies and even fruit flies carry dangerous bacteria and other disease-causing microorganisms.
Over 100 pathogens have been recorded from flies, including Salmonella, cholera, Shigella, Campylobacter, E. coli, Cryptosporidium, and also parasitic worms and fungi.
- They feed on faecal matter, garbage and rotting materials, picking up contaminated materials on their feet and bodies.
- They then transfer it to clean areas and fresh foods that they feed on.
- House flies regurgitate digestive juices and defecate while feeding and resting, transferring more pathogens.
Cockroaches are another group of insects that can spread many types of disease, including Salmonella, Staphylococcus, Listeria, E. coli, and also fungi, viruses and parasitic worms.
- They are attracted by even small residues of food left around food preparation areas or from spills, garbage and drains they even eat cardboard.
- Cockroaches can also be brought into premises in deliveries due to poor practices by suppliers or transporters.
- They feed on decaying matter, mould, faecal matter in sewers, from rodents and birds, and animal carcasses, which can then be transmitted onto food production, preparation, storage and display areas. They shelter in shelving in food stores, dark places such as cracks and crevices in walls and floors, drains, sewers, inside equipment and machinery.
4. Building design and maintenance
Poor building design and maintenance allows pests access through windows, doorways, drains and sewers, spaces around pipes and cableways, vents, screens and holes in roofs.
Once pests have access, they present a major threat to food safety. Poor maintenance of grounds around buildings gives rodents harbourage, and poor management of garbage the containers and the areas where they are stored attracts rodents, flies, cockroaches, birds and ants.
Inside buildings, rats, mice and cockroaches will look for small hidden places to shelter undisturbed, and birds can access poorly maintained roof spaces.
5. Food fraud
The risk of food fraud is low in products found in the stores of the main retail food suppliers. However, occasionally the safety barriers are breached and food safety is threatened.
Remember the horse meat scandal? Several meats and processed food suppliers were found to have put both registered and unregistered horsemeat into products where it was labelled as beef. Wrongly labelled products were found in Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, France, Lithuania, Latvia, Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg.
Some of the horse meat was originally exported from Romania legally and correctly labelled, while other sources were racehorses in the UK and research horses in France illegally put in the human food chain. It was seen as a breakdown in the food supply chain safety measures as retailers had trusted their suppliers and did not have full traceability of ingredients. One commentator put the blame on the lack of food inspectors available to inspect food processors and retail food stores.
- Gerba CP, Maxwell S. Bacterial contamination of shopping carts and approaches to control. Food Protection Trends, Vol 32, No 12, 2012. http://www.foodprotection.org/files/food-protection-trends/Dec-12-Maxwell.pdf
- Wikipedia, 2013 meat adulteration scandal https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_meat_adulteration_scandal