COVID has permanently affected consumer attitudes toward food safety and their own safety as they navigate the various channels in which they buy their foods.

Similarly, the pandemic has changed how grocery retailers think about crisis management planning, employee best practices, employee morale, and supplier controls, all of which have an impact on food safety and consumer health, said Tyler Williams, vice president of operations, St. Louis-based ASI LLC. 

For example, maintaining employee morale while implementing stricter employee practices (more frequent hand washing, wearing face masks, social distancing, etc.) is very challenging.

“If even one employee is not following these best practices, whether that's due to low morale or poor training, it could potentially lead to hundreds of consumers getting sick, or worse,” Williams said. “And with restaurants being closed, and stay at home orders in place, more and more consumers were flocking to their local grocery store. I think grocery retailers understood this risk very early on, and did a great job implementing safeguards to ensure consumers were kept as safe as possible while shopping at their stores.”

COVID, he added, has opened the world's eyes to how quickly viruses can spread. For this reason, expect many precautions to remain in place for the foreseeable future — things like more people wearing masks during cold/flu season, more hand sanitizer stations located in stores, better cleaning and sanitation practices, and better crisis management planning from senior management.

“Additionally, I think the biggest change for retailers will be instilling backup suppliers as part of their contingency plan to avoid shortages and potential loss of sales.” 

Fortunately, Williams said, retailers tend to get the benefit of the doubt from consumers: most still have the mindset that if the grocery store is selling it, the product is safe. However, a recent study found that consumers are starting to care more about food and beverage companies having a transparent supply chain, with 6 out of every 10 consumers claiming to be interested in knowing more about their foods’ origin going into 2021, Williams said.

“In that same vein, consumers may pay closer attention to food safety practices they can see with their own eyes, like at the deli counter for example,” he said.

Retailer insights: a food safety Q&A with Rachel Shemirani, senior vice president for San Diego-based Barons Market

How has COVID changed Barons' and other grocery retailers' and their supplier partners' attitudes toward food safety and the health of their customers? 

Retailers and suppliers are taking safety, in all areas of the store, more seriously than ever. It’s much more than making sure your temperatures in your coolers and hot food bars are correct. It’s now about making sure high touch surfaces like counters, registers, shopping carts, bathrooms are constantly cleaned and sanitized. It’s making sure our employees are staying healthy. We’ve always made sure our employees stayed home when they are sick, but this year has put this issue at the forefront.

Will some (or many, or most) of the precautions instituted during COVID remain after the pandemic is finally over? 

We will definitely keep up our cleaning and sanitizing practices - that just makes good overall sense. We’re also hoping that we can reopen our salad bars, olive bars and hot food bars but with added safety measures like tray covers, so that no food is “out in the open”. We’d really like to bring back our demo program. It will be important that each sample is served directly to the customer instead of pre-assembling samples. Customers are starting to ask us when these pre-pandemic features (self-serve bars, demo station, etc.) will be back and we want to be able to bring them back as safely as possible.

Has food safety become a more important factor that consumers consider when making their food purchase decisions? 

Food safety has now become an important part of the customers in-store experience. Before, food safety was in the background. Now, customers want to see what retailers are doing to make the in-store shopping experience as safe as possible. We have gotten so many comments from existing and new customers about how safe they feel in our stores, and how they won’t shop in other retailers who aren’t taking safety more seriously.

What are some of the latest developments in food safety practices and technologies that Barons is taking advantage of at the store level? 

We’re just continuing to make food safety a priority for the customers in-store experience. We’re really excited to see what happens after the pandemic is over. We can’t wait to figure out what the new normal is, but our goal is and will continue to be to bring people back together safely over great food and get back out into our communities.

PSSI’s Jake Watts on five ways the pandemic enhanced the food safety culture:

More than a year after the pandemic began, we’re looking forward to a “better normal” on the horizon. As an executive at PSSI, I knew this outcome was not always certain. 

After the food industry was challenged with evolving consumer demands, food production facility closures, restricted trade policies, and worker safety concerns, we adapted to a new way of operating. It was also an opportunity to strategically ensure food safety came out of the pandemic as a stronger industry. This was enabled by a culture that valued food safety like never before. 

Here are five ways our food safety culture and best practices have been enhanced to have a lasting impact on the food industry well beyond the pandemic. 

  • Safety education has gone beyond the workplace. In our industry, we have strict safety policies to keep our employees safe while on the clock. We realized it was important to encourage good practices outside of work. During the pandemic, we saw more training, including tips on how to stay safe outside of work. Encouraging proper hygiene practices, habitual hand-washing, good housekeeping, and social distancing guidelines to follow outside of work will help prevent the introduction and spread of illness, pests, or other contaminants in facilities. 
  • Communal areas are now treated as an extension of the production floor. When the EPA confirmed COVID-19 can be transmitted by touching an infected surface and then subsequently touching one’s mouth, nose, or eyes, a new frequency in which high-touchpoint surfaces were cleaned was established. Communal areas, such as break rooms, cafeterias, and locker rooms, are now more than ever seen as an extension of the production floor. Traffic patterns were either established or reestablished within facilities to combat the transmission of the virus and enhanced sanitation SOPs at a greater cleaning frequency for these communal areas were developed. 
  • More personal protective equipment (PPE) is available. Food processing companies have spent millions of dollars implementing additional safety measures to keep employees safe. In any facility across the country, you will see plexiglass dividers in cafeterias, hand hygiene stations, and extra stock of PPE, including facemasks. Ensuring PPE is worn and stored properly will help maintain the integrity of it and provide the highest level of protection for our employees. 
  • New chemical solutions are accessible. Many new chemical products were introduced or used in new ways during the pandemic. At PSSI, we developed a strategy that included routine applications of PURE® Hard Surface sanitizer and disinfectant – a misting solution that is 99.99% effective against all types of bacteria, fungi and viruses. We also saw a spike in the sales and placements of our hand sanitizing products and dispensers which will likely remain as permanent additions to high traffic areas of facilities.  
  • Desktop audits give new lens on food safety. Restricted travel forced our food safety team members to get creative when it came to the verification of our food safety programs. What we found was less travel gave our audit experts a higher capacity and more frequent touchpoints for desktop audit support. This audit format is now used to review documentation necessary to meet PSSI standards, customer expectations, regulatory compliance, and third-party audit requirements; to stay “audit ready." 

Jake Watts is the vice president of food safety for Kieler, Wis.-based PSSI.