E. Coli Outbreak Directs Attention on Food Handling

Just when the issue seemed to have been safely tucked away, foodborne illness returned to the front page. In mid September, an E. coli outbreak caused by contaminated spinach reminded consumers that they cannot take the safety of the food they buy for granted. As federal officials worked strenuously to determine the cause of the outbreak, which caused hundreds of cases of food poisoning at this writing, the foodservice industry worked to assure the public that the situation was under control.

Vending operators, particularly those with commissaries and cafeterias, joined other foodservice operators in removing fresh spinach and assuring consumers there was nothing to worry about. While the majority of vending operators did not feel they were affected by the E. coli outbreak, many also recognized the need to maintain strict food handling procedures.

Vending operators interviewed at random in the weeks following the E. coli outbreak reported very few inquiries from customers about the problem, which reached nationwide proportions. Most operators said the concern was restricted to fresh, bagged spinach.

Many vending operators, including all of the nationals (Aramark, Compass Group and Sodexho), announced they were not serving fresh spinach in any accounts.

Many operators were quick to remind themselves of the training they provide their employees in safe food handling. The publicity surrounding the outbreak gave them an additional reason to make sure these training programs remain intact.

CL Swanson Corp., a Madison, Wis.-based vending and foodservice provider active in several states, did not want to draw a lot of attention to the issue, but made it a point to have all manual foodservice managers assure customers that everything was under control, noted Jeff Parks, president. "For the most part, the (affected) product was only available in the retail segment, not the institutional segment," Parks said.

Parks noted that drawing attention to an issue can have negative consequences. Sometimes the information itself can cause a customer to associate a malady with something they ate in a cafeteria.

Like most operations, CL Swanson does not use any spinach at all in its vend offerings.

SOME OPERATORS PULL SALADS

Some operators chose to pull salads from machines and manual operations, even though they did not use spinach.

"We did back off on our salads because I thought there might be some response," said Bob Bostelman, a partner at Maumee Valley Vending in Defiance, Ohio. While there were no calls from customers, Bostelman felt it made sense to take action to prevent any concern. "It (the outbreak) has a mushrooming effect," he said. "I do think people (in general) are more concerned about food supplies."

Bostelman thinks the fact that his company has been active in the community in food safety awareness has paid dividends. His commissary employees attend food safety seminars held by regulatory agencies. He has long been committed to food safety because in his view, fresh food is a major selling point.

Treat America Ltd., a multi-state vending and foodservice operation based in Kansas City, Mo., immediately removed all spinach, noted John Tracy, vice president of sales and marketing. The company received no calls due to the outbreak, but Tracy believes that it will create heightened public concern about food safety.

INDUSTRY ASSOCIATIONS HELP OPERATORS WITH TRAINING

Treat America educates its customers regularly about its safe practices in its customer newsletter. The company uses the National Restaurant Association's ServeSafe program in all of its manual foodservice operations. Vending route drivers are trained using the NAMA driver training materials.

Treat America's operations are also inspected regularly by municipal health officials. But to make sure that the employees are following procedures, the supervisors and managers conduct regular spot inspections of machines. "We're very focused on food sanitation and food safety," noted John Mitchell, Jr., company president.

Stansfield Vending Inc. in La Crosse, Wis. did not feel the need to take any action in response to the outbreak, despite the fact that Wisconsin suffered a disproportionate number of E. coli-related illnesses. Kevin Witt, vending manager, said salads are not a big item. More importantly, the company has dedicated food trucks and the drivers are trained to clean machines with every visit. There were no questions from customers.

"A food driver needs to be a food specialist," Witt said. "We can't allow any outdated food in our food machines." Stansfield's food drivers receive six weeks of training under supervision before they work on their own. The company takes the temperature in every food truck at both the start and end of the day.

In addition, there is a dedicated sanitation crew that takes apart and cleans the food machines quarterly, Witt said. This is in addition to the cleaning the drivers do with every visit.

FEDERAL GUIDELINES FOR FOOD PRODUCTION

The commissary staff follows the federal government's Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) guidelines for food production. HACCP is a preventative system for controlling food safety hazards with a host of verification and record keeping requirements. HACCP has been credited by The Center for Disease Control and Prevention with reducing foodborne illnesses, which include E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria.

Stansfield Vending's facility is inspected regularly by both the county and the U.S. military. The military inspects because the company services some military facilities.

"Any time you get inspected, it's helping you be more conscious," Witt noted.

In addition, Stansfield sends food samples to a medical laboratory every week for testing. Four times a year, areas within the facility are swabbed and the swabs are sent for testing. "The swabbing is in addition to the HACCP," noted Rhonda Jensen, Stansfield's foodservice director.

Galen Starkweather, owner of Valley Vending and Hasty Tasty Food Service in Davenport, Ia., was asked by one of his military accounts if he was using spinach, which he wasn't. Starkweather thinks the outbreak will raise public concern about food safety. He thinks that having a military account helps assure his customers he's doing a good job.

Starkweather also invites customers to tour his commissary, which follows HACCP procedures.

TAPPING A LOCAL CULINARY SCHOOL

GPL Food Services in Bainbridge, Ga. did not receive any calls about the E. coli outbreak, noted Vic Pemberton, owner. He keeps his staff up to speed on food safety by having people from a local culinary school provide training. He also has his foodservice employees certified under the National Restaurant Association's ServeSafe program.

Automated Food Service Inc. in Pompano Beach, Fla. did not receive any calls about the outbreak, noted Scott Guardino, general manager. The company markets its food safety program aggressively. Route drivers are provided step ladders, dusters, and cleaning solutions and are expected to clean food machines thoroughly. In hospital accounts, they are expected to do this with every service visit.

Customers are asked to rate their performance quarterly, in addition to company inspections.

Guardino even got Procter & Gamble Inc. to provide him with glassfront stickers bearing the Spic And Span logo that announce: "This vending machine has been cleaned with Spic And Span disinfecting all-purpose spray and glass cleaner for your protection."

TECHNOLOGY CONTROLS TEMPERATURE

Five Star Food Service Inc., based in Chattanooga, Tenn., uses new technology in its food safety program. The company has a wireless data logger on its trucks that tracks temperatures at scheduled intervals. The data tracker from Cooper Atkins, a technology provider, wirelessly transmits real-time data to an on-site and/or remote personal computer.

Grayson Wood, director of risk management at Five Star Food Service, said at least one food item in every food truck has a wireless data logger in it. The item is marked so that the driver knows not to place it in a machine.

Kenoza Vending in Merrimac, Mass. believes strongly in having dedicated food routes. The food trucks carry trays so the driver can switch a dirty tray in a machine if he wishes. "They (dedicated food trucks) lend more experience to the cleanliness and the merchandising of the product because that's their forte," explained Hy Der Bogosian, company owner. He noted that food drivers are paid on a different basis than the snack and beverage drivers.

Gallins Foods Inc., based in Winston-Salem, N.C., has a supervisor ride with every driver once a month to make sure the driver is following all safety and sanitation procedures, noted John Fourqurean, president. The company follows the NAMA route driver certification guidelines, which Fourqurean has taught at state association seminars.

Gallins Foods includes a copy of the NAMA driver certificate in its sales proposals.

Cater Time Vending in Kansas City, Mo. has a person whose job it is to clean all the food machines, noted Gene Madden, route supervisor. Every food machine is thoroughly cleaned once a month in addition to the regular cleaning that the drivers do. In addition, supervisors visit food machines and check the temperatures.

First Choice Food & Beverage Solutions, a part of Viking Coca-Cola Bottling in St. Cloud, Minn., builds safe practices into its employee compensation program, noted Russ Ergen, company controller. Each month, supervisors inspect machines and fill out reports on their conditions. If a driver's reports are good, he or she can receive a monthly financial bonus.

Nor Cal Beverage Co. in N. Sacramento, Calif. removed all salads containing spinach after the outbreak, noted Tim Willbanks, vending director. The company, which gets its spinach from a foodservice distributor, did not receive any calls about the salads.

Like many vending operations, Nor Cal Beverage educates its customers about its safe practices when they first take on their business. Willbanks said this has sufficiently assured customers about food safety.

SCRUTINY REINFORCES NEED FOR TRAINING

The recent E. Coli outbreak hasn't affected the vending industry significantly in and of itself. However, the scrutiny has contributed to an atmosphere of concern that affects every sector of the food industry.

For many vending operators, the recent outbreak was a reminder of the need to brush up on safe handling practices.

Fortunately, there are a variety of education and training resources available to vending operators through trade organizations, educational institutions and public health agencies.

The scrutiny also makes operators aware of the need to maintain aggressive supervision of their employees, particularly those involved in food handling.

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