Area supermarkets say they work to keep the food they sell safe

November 18, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

The day after a network news show charged scandalous abuses in food handling in some stores of Food Lion, a North Carolina-based grocery chain, Paul Santoni had an impromptu meeting with personnel of the Santoni's market he happened to be visiting that day.

"We just said, let's review our program and make sure what we're doing is right," said Mr. Santoni, who is vice president for operations of the three Santoni's markets in the Baltimore area.

Also in the wake of the segment on ABC's "PrimeTime Live," other people who operate food stores in the Baltimore region are taking pains to assure customers that their policies and practices prevent abuses like those alleged against Food Lion.

Giant Food, Inc., which, with 155 supermarkets in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, is the region's largest chain, has been running a television ad it's used in the past: "That's cleanliness. That's my Giant." The message, says Giant spokesman Mark Roeder, is, "We keep our stores the way customers keep their homes."

In the ABC story, current and former Food Lion employees said they were pressured to doctor "sell-by" dates, disguise bad meat as sausage or with barbecue sauce, sell food pulled out of dumpsters, and soak fish in baking soda to obscure a spoiled smell, among other things.

Food Lion officials have denied ordering such practices, and contend that the complaints were designed to garner "maximum press attention" for a union that is trying to organize store workers. Food Lion has 968 stores in 14 states, including 10 in Maryland. "PrimeTime Live," which placed a producer in a Food Lion store as an employee and used a hidden camera to document what she saw, is standing by its story.

Jerry Welch, chief of the Bureau of Food Control for the Baltimore Health Department, the department that checks out city food purveyors, said he was braced for a flood of consumer calls after the show aired.

"Usually, when a story breaks on a certain food item, I get a lot of calls," said Mr. Welch. "But not this time. I haven't had any increase in calls, especially not on the major chains, about food being mishandled or mislabeled."

Retail food officials say there's no reason for consumers to be alarmed.

"There are rules and regulations that, if people follow them, prevent these problems -- there's good, established science on how to maintain food safety," said David Richman, Giant's vice president of quality assurance.

Members of Mr. Richman's department make unannounced "swabbing" visits to the chain's stores. "We take bacterial swabs in processing areas -- for example, a cutting block -- and take them back to the lab on ice and test them" for bacterial contamination, he said. Each store gets tested three of four times a year, he said. "But no store knows when it will happen."

Safeway, which has 144 stores in Maryland, Virginia and the district,also has its own quality assurance unit, said Lawrence Johnson, director of public relations. Mr. Johnson said "virtually every store" receives some kind of inspection -- from merchandisers, managers, quality assurance personnel and others -- every week. "Everybody's in there with a different set of eyes and ears."

Consumer advocates consider any flap over food safety a good thing.

"It's made people more aware that there's a big gap in the protection of our food supply," said Gerald Kuester, director for food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer-interests group in Washington. "We have to rely on local jurisdictions, which are often understaffed and underfunded."

The center would like to see two things come out of this new awareness. "We'd like to see more federal oversight in the multi-state operations," Mr. Kuester said. "And we'd certainly like to see corporate whistle-blower protection" extended to employees in the fields of food, drugs, and medical devices. Current "whistle-blowing" protection -- measures designed to protect employees who blow the whistle on bad practices by their employers -- applies only to federal workers.

Mr. Kuester doesn't think problems are limited to a few stores. "I think because they were able to find it in one place, it's pretty widespread. Enforcement of food-safety regulations isn't very strong," he said.

"We're already inspected by federal, state and local jurisdictions," noted Karen Brown, spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group that includes retail food stores. "It's not in anyone's interest to sell food that's not up to standards of health and safety." She noted that FMI is "on record supporting whatever resources necessary" for existing agencies to "carry out their duties."

Mr. Welch, of the Baltimore city health department, said complaints he has gotten in the past tended to be for much

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