Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Grocery Store Artifact: How haste makes waste that affects your food

Thinking of eating at your local deli? Work spaces looks nice and clean, staff looks appropriately groomed, caring and conscientious? Well, before you do take a glance at the phone and any register behind the counter. Regardless of the service and appearance of everything else if the secondary equipment is unclean then in spite of how everything else appears they may be indicative of a greater problem in the service area. In the delicatessen the grime on peripheral equipment consists at the least of a slurry of meat and vegetable oils, fats and other bits of food and chemicals transferred by touch and deposited via the air from venting ovens, fry vats and steam tables. In short the surfaces of any neglected food prep area equipment are a constant and unhealthy vector for germs.

Much of this is directly due to the economy and the way it shapes retail establishment operations. Certainly, any business can be prone too cutting corners on safety. Not all eating establishments fall prey to this mentality but even those who truly care about quality and their products can unintentionally create an environment where food safety is less than a primary concern. When sales are depressed then the number of employees available in store departments are reduced. More work is given to less and less staff without an increase in the time allowed for completing the extra tasks. Budgets for staffing is tight and few stores can afford to have any department work at a loss. This leads to a constant atmosphere of playing catch up with the wrong decisions to let certain things go by the wayside in an attempt to stay current with basic duties. Haste in this instance, makes waste that could end up in the food chain.

Speed and trying to keep up with the basic demands of the department are not the only cause of  sub-standard work areas but most of the problems in an otherwise fine environment stem from time pressures causing stress on the employees. Likewise depending on where you shop basic food prep areas and hygiene may be unfavorable because people are sometimes lazy, slovenly or careless. That is why most cities have entire departments dedicated to training, certification, sanitation, inspection and rating of eating establishments.

As a minimum all the equipment whether it is used in food prep or not should be as clean and presentable as possible. Dirty phones and cash registers in the service area, normally not directly related to food prep, may reveal that the staff could be under pressure to serve customers at the expense of department safety. Primarily this may be because of employees feeling they are unable to fully complete their tasks while ensuring they assist customers as close to possible to the end of the business day without occurring any overtime or going past their scheduled shift. Rightly or wrongly employees often feel that they do not have the time to clean anything but the basic equipment before they are forced to sign out from their shift and depart. When the department is closed for the day the equipment, main and peripheral areas should be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. If the peripheral areas are not being fully cleaned then the department is not being properly managed. This negatively affects the consumer.

This is not alarmist. I've worked in a deli and have often observed people absentmindedly touching a handle, cleaning rag, phone and etc. while properly wearing gloves but failing to change them before helping another customer. While California is stricter regarding food prep standards my deli employment experience was in Maryland. The region is which I worked did not require food workers to obtain training and certifications in handling food safely and instead relied on an employer's sometimes inadequate and poorly executed on-the-job training programs. In Maryland all my food safety was learned from co-workers and in total consisted of about an hour of common-sense tips of how to clean equipment, cut and handle food over a the span of a week or so while I worked.

The majority of what I learned about food safety wasn't volunteered and there were no set training tasks to be completed, goals to be met or a curriculum. If I didn't specifically ask about something I wasn't told how to do it or how to care for it. For instance, a probe is used to check temperatures on the products in the case to ensure they will not spoil. Employees regularly inserted the probe into the products one after the other. They did this because no one had ever told them that using the same probe was a bad practice and caused transference of one product between another. FYI: You place the probe between the bricks of cheese, not poke into the product.

Since some products were cooked, some raw, some older than others and some were still sealed this violated basic hygiene and caused cross-contamination within an entire stock on a nearly daily basis (The proper way to check the temperatures was to place the probe between each item in the case). In contrast, a class provided by a vendor of popular deli meats and cheeses to learn how to properly present and sell their product comprised of a classroom course of 8 hours a day for 5 days (employees that failed the course were demoted to bagging clerk or terminated, depending on their pay scale going in). While that was Maryland human nature is much the same everywhere and there are problems common wherever you are. Being a manager is guiding human nature into other better directions to achieve goals.

Staff working in rough economic times are often not scheduled past closing for the purposes of cleaning or other duties. For example, if the deli closes at 10 pm then odds are the employees are also scheduled so that their shift is over at about the same time. The closing workers are often forced to clean and prepare the deli for the next day near the end of  the shift and hope no customers arrive which would cause them to clean the equipment again and accrue overtime or work past their schedule. This would violate the budget for allotted hours and cause them to be punished.

The deli staff may also be under instructions by management that for a positive customer service experience and in the hopes of one extra sale before closing they must assist any customer that arrives regardless of the time or how near the end of shift a staff member may be. During periods of inadequate staffing employees from other departments may volunteer or be tasked to assist departments that prepare food. Some regions have laws that do not require employees to become a certified food handler unless they work in a food prep area for a set number of days. That means a company can use any employee they choose to assist a deli or meat and seafood department as long as they don't work there too many consecutive days in a row. Think about that. 

In the interests of speed and getting their tasks done it is not unheard of for family members or friends of the time-pressured employee to pitch in and help them finish their duties. Non-employees helping is unsafe in many ways. Not being employees they may be injured, are a liability and are not trained or certified in proper hygiene as required by law. I have witnessed this occurring in both Maryland and California (and as a manager have taken steps to halt the practice when I discovered it). A favored restaurant in Southern California I used to frequent recently lost their A-Rating Health Certification directly due to repeated violations concerning non-employed family members without food handler certifications working in the kitchen.

Haste to avoid getting censured or terminated for unauthorized overtime or working past the posted schedule can lead to poorly cleaned work areas and equipment. The night shift employees do what they can as time permits but sometimes leave a lot of work to be done by the opening crew. Common wisdom would be that the morning shift will have more employees available but this is not always the case. Even if staffed with a full complement the opening shift employees then however unintentionally perpetuates the cycle by being too busy with customers, morning food preparation and cooking to adequately clean up what was left undone from the day before. In between customers and the regular duties they then are forced to catch up with work from the previous day all while attempting to maintain standards during the busy day. Also, many establishments have a set time limit on how long a customer's order will take or the item is free. This adds even more pressure to the employee to cut corners in the interest of speed to avoid losing a sale or a customer.

Compounding the problem the prevailing Management theory at most places is if the current employees are unable to do a thorough job in a timely and efficient manner then the next new-hire will. The result of all these factors is employees letting what is considered 'unimportant' in the routine operation of a deli slide in the interests of speed and getting done for the day. Unrealistic performance goals and being under-staffed is a reason there is so much turn-over of employees in chain delicatessens.

High turn-over means that a good proportion of the staff is always new. A common complaint from customers is that no one in the deli seems to know what they are doing. This is due in large part to the rapid exit of knowledgeable employees who can receive the same wages for far less work and stress elsewhere and the steep learning curve of the new deli staff. In my experience it is not uncommon to see a new hire left alone on their first day in the deli because the scheduling budget will not provide for additional workers.

There is no excuse other than personal rationalization for a dirty food preparation area or equipment but the the reality is that this cycle will continue until such time as employees are under less pressure, assigned dedicated cleaning time that is uninterrupted by other tasks, regardless of if they exceed their scheduled shift with or without accruing overtime.

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