KANSAS CITY, MO. – The coronavirus is fundamentally changing the way the food industry thinks about all kinds of processes and procedures — including, in many cases, food safety outbreaks.

The outbreak is “uncharted territory for everyone,” said Candy Lucas, senior director of food safety, South division, for Kieler, Wis.-based PSSI.

“It’s hard to say how this will impact any future audits of grocery suppliers as there are so many things to consider,” Lucas said. “Any audit would be government regulated, and at this point there has been no type of address to this pandemic.”

PSSI believes it might have the effect of changing the housekeeping and GMPs in grocery stores in how often they’re cleaning and sanitizing all the areas of the store. The company has already seen changes with grocery stores closing early to deep clean at night, offering sanitizing wipes for the carts, and sanitizers at checkouts, Lucas said.

“The world is changing, and we will all be adapting to it. We believe the awareness of sanitization will be heightened because of the food traffic in grocery stores.”

Westwood, NJ-based Comprehensive Food Safety and its sister company, RK Environmental, launched their COVID-19 Task Force in February, said Stan Cherkasky, Comprehensive Food Safety’s managing director.

The overarching focus, he said, was to protect the health and safety of our clients’ employees and customers.

“It’s critically important, now more than ever, to help our industry ensure employee health, safety and well-being. Our COVID-19 client solutions have been readily embraced by our clients to complement their mitigation strategies.”

These solutions focus on effective mitigation strategies to combat coronavirus, and on the health and safety of retail employees and customers. The solutions, coupled with the company’s clients’ COVID -19 protocols, have been very effective, Cherkasky said.

Comprehensive Food Safety’s COVID-19 solutions include:

  • Remote/Virtual COVID-19 crisis response assessment and training
  • Virucidal protection service to combat coronavirus
  • Health self-assessments (food safety-focused) based on CDC and FDA guidelines
  • Remote food safety consulting, auditing and virtual training

In light of the coronavirus, Cherkasky said, many retail chains, large and small, have shifted their focus from routine, instore, third-party audits to other approaches. Employee safety and health concerns are critical, and remote auditing is becoming more and more the norm during the coronavirus.

“Most third-party retail audit firms have a ‘check-box mentality,” Cherkasky said. “CFS ‘training audits,’ however, focus on sustainable improvement, while building a culture of accountability. It’s not acceptable to have a repeat critical violation on an audit report.”


New technologies, new services

St. Louis-based ASI LLC saw big changes in 2019 and the first part of 2020, enabling the company to provide its commissary, supplier and retail clients with even better food safety audit and other services, said Tyler Williams, vice president of operations.

“The two main areas that we’ve had our largest strides in are our technology and our ever-growing list of new services,” he said.
On the technology side, ASI has been working on harnessing the power of both its audit and training platforms, Williams said. The company’s auditing system now gives it greater control over the entire audit and corrective action process, along with excellent reporting capabilities.

Also new and improved for 2020 is ASI’s training platform, which has helped streamline both internal and external training. The company is also now able to offer online, on-demand training to the public.
ASI’s other main focus has been to grow its list of services that it can provide to the industry.

PSSI helps its customers stay “two steps ahead of their audits” with its Real-Time Performance Metrics (RPM) platform, Lucas said.

“The data and corrective actions recorded by our team through the RPM platform is exactly the type of documentation regulators are looking for to validate the consistency and effectiveness of each cleaning process,” Lucas said.

The platform not only helps streamline data tracking and reporting needed from a compliance standpoint, she added. It also enables food safety sanitors to proactively respond to any changes or concerns related to the sanitation process in real-time, which in return will set PSSI’s customers up for audit success.

PSSI’s audits include but are not limited to GMPS, foreign material control, regulatory compliance and verification of documentation for all procedures and policies in place, which is crucial to supermarkets, said Kent Bruns, the company’s senior director of food safety, north division.

“The eight steps of sanitation go into everything that audits entail,” he said. “Sanitation is one of the cornerstones of food safety. It starts with a clean plant.”

PSSI helps its supplier partners become audit-ready and achieve SQF and BRC certification, which the majority of companies require for their audits, Bruns said. PSSI does that through its eight-step sanitation protocol. Every PSSI auditor first examines the plant with a visual inspection to verify the sanitation process is effective. The final step is documentation, which provides plant managers with the data they need to be audit-ready.

PSSI also helps with SSOPS, food safety sanitor training guides, and pre-op measures, Bruns added. The company collectively gathers data for trend analysis to identify any potential food safety opportunities for its plants.

“Our audit is internal,” he said. “Our customers don’t use our audits. They have their own process. We provide our real-time tracking tools and the eight steps of sanitation to help provide them with the tools and information to prepare for their audits.”

Generally, suppliers utilize third party auditors to perform required audits by supermarkets such as SQF and BRC. Those audits encompass the entire food safety system, which includes sanitation.


Changing the culture

Comprehensive Food Safety’s audits and inspections include one-on-one training of its clients’ foodservice handlers, department heads and staff, Cherkasky said.

Changing a company’s food safety culture from top to bottom is one of Comprehensive Food Safety’s specialties, he said. The company offers its clients full-time consultant-auditors, industry leadership in both food safety and IPM, affordable turnkey solutions for retailers, a flexible, proprietary cloud-based platform and many other services.

One emerging trend in the industry, Cherkasky said, is risk-based retail food safety audits with a focus on perishables. One problem is the fact that integrated pest management is often outsourced to the pest control operator, often with little or no responsibility by the retail organization.

“There is a noticeable lack of attention to OSHA safety and integrated pest management during routine food safety audits,” he said. “Employee health and safety must never be comprised.”

The retail grocery industry is entering a new era that’s focused on advancing technology, and real-time reporting and information sharing, Cherkasky said.

“Flexible, cloud-based reporting platforms are being used more and more throughout the retail industry to mitigate , drive compliance, and to improve quality. The days of manual reporting systems are gone forever.”

Cloud-based reporting platforms provide laser-focused insight and corresponding action, he added. And the ability to have users in each store is essential to ensure timely corrective actions that address root causes. Most important, he said, the platform should be easily customizable to meet the unique and constantly-changing retail reporting requirements across the industry.

“This is essential to comply with all regulatory requirements, to accelerate culture shift and to ensure sustained results.”


Jumping on the CBD bandwagon

One target of ASI’s growth, Williams said, is the booming CBD industry.

“We have an entirely new and innovative audit scheme for cannabis safety and quality, aiming to improve both the safety and the quality of the global supply chain of cannabis and cannabis-infused products,” he said. “The progress made in the cannabis industry in the past year has been immense, and our audit scheme is aiming to keep consumers safe and healthy just like consumers of food products.”

ASI has many other exciting things to come, Williams promised.

“We are continually adding new fully on-demand e-learning courses for the food industry, developing new audit standards and improving our current audit standards to keep up with current industry guidelines.”

When it comes to food safety, ASI’s auditing services provide insight into the food processors grocery retailers and commissaries buy from.

That, Williams said, helps boost the procurement department’s confidence when selecting a product. Additionally, ASI assists grocery retailers with their internal food safety programs through continuous audits of their warehouses and private label brands.

Most retailers and commissaries will rely on third-party auditing firms such as ASI to provide facility information for the suppliers of the food products. Now more than ever, Williams said, it’s increasingly important for retailers’ suppliers to be fully verified with either a cGMP audit or a GFSI benchmarked audit scheme.

That said, retailers are slowly looking into options such as the SQF Food Safety Code for Food Retail to improve food safety at their storefronts.

In the long run, Williams doesn’t think the coronavirus will have a detrimental impact on grocery stores and commissaries, due to food being a necessity. 

In the short term, though, there will be an obvious economic impact, potentially closing smaller food manufacturers and thereby forcing grocery stores and commissaries to obtain products from other suppliers.

That, he added, makes the audit services provided by companies like ASI more important than ever, ensuring that the food supply always remains safe.