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
milder abuses than those charged on "PrimeTime Live." "We do get complaints about redating," he said, but he said the department is more concerned with "wholesomeness" of the food. In one case, he said, store personnel were unwrapping packages of chicken at its sell-by date and, if still seemed good, replacing it on shelves. "The food was wholesome," he said, "but they were changing the date." He said in that case, the practice is no longer occurring. But he said he doesn't ever recall charges like those alleged against Food Lion.
"I don't feel it's at all like that in Baltimore," he said.
Mr. Welch said his team of 10 field inspectors and one "lead sanitarian" do about 12,000 inspections of 6,000 facilities a year. They also investigate about 1,300 complaints. Like all other city departments and jurisdictions, his has been affected by budget and staff cuts. In the past, the department has had more inspectors, and yes, he conceded, he'd like to have more people. "It's enough to do an adequate job," he said, "but
it's not enough."
Still, he said he thinks consumers in Baltimore are savvy enough that inspectors can rely on them to help ferret out abuse. "I think every consumer in Baltimore has my name and number," he said.
The TV report indicated that at least part of the pressure on employees to sell as much as possible, even if the product isn't fresh, is tied to the pressure to make a profit. Grocery stores operate on a thin profit margin -- net profits of about 1 cent on the dollar, according to the Food Marketing Institute -- and typically depend on sales volume for profitability.
In some cases, generally at the larger chains, managers' compensation is linked in some way to profit. "PrimeTime Live" quoted a man it identified as a former Food Lion market manager as saying that cheese nibbled on by rats was simply trimmed and put back out. "You know, we had to, because if we didn't make our gross profit, we were out the door."
Safeway does tie compensation to profit, said Mr. Johnson of Safeway and he acknowledged there is the possibility of abuse in the system. "They are human beings out there." But, he said, "you avoid that by having a good check and balance system."
Some years ago when Santoni's had more stores, it did tie manager compensation to profits, Mr. Santoni said; he said it's "common" in the industry. But abuses like those alleged at Food Lion "are some of the problems you could get into" with such a system, he said. Santoni's no longer employs the practice.
Mr. Santoni said that in his small chain, it's easy to check on the wholesomeness of products and practices. "We have supervisors who are in charge of various departments," Mr. Santoni said. "I'm in charge of meat and seafood." The supervisors keep a close eye on the stores, he said. "I'm in the stores a minimum of once a week."
Nancy Schaffer, CEO of Eddie's of Roland Park and the new Eddie's on N. Charles Street, said that besides regular inspections by Baltimore city and Baltimore County, she relies on several marketing techniques to avoid problems with food. "Our ordering is such that there isn't a lot left over," she said. "We buy everything fresh and sell everything fresh. We have very little pre-packaged anything." Eddie's managers and department heads "believe their own department belongs to them," she said. "Our customers know the department managers by name -- if something's wrong, they'll hear about it."
Giant also expects to "hear about" problems; the chain has an elaborate "inquiry" system, in which every complaint, compliment, question or suggestion is written up on a computer form and investigated by a supervisor.
"We have more in-store supervision than most other chains," said Barry Scher, director of public affairs for Giant. "We have supervision at every level -- you better believe it. We're very strict about that." To make sure employees know what's expected of them, the chain runs "Giant School," a training facility in Greenbelt. Although Mr. Scher wouldn't discuss how Giant managers are compensated, he did say, "We are a very centralized company. Store managers don't have a lot of authority."
At Santoni's, newly hired employees spend their first week working with the department manager, Mr. Santoni said. "Including evening hours, so they see the closing-down procedures."
The television report quoted Food Lion employees as saying they weren't given time at the end of the day to clean up properly; one said he had never been shown how to take a machine apart to clean it.
Mr. Santoni said, "We have a time-management system in place -- if an employee runs out of time at the end of the day, cleaning up, we tell him to continue. And the manager will OK the hours."
Mr. Johnson of Safeway said he thinks the TV program has created "some awareness" among consumers that problems can exist. "Some people believed it, some didn't; and some understood it as the problems of one chain," Mr. Johnson said. "We haven't been inundated with phone calls."
Like other stores in the region, Safeway has no plans to change any procedures in the wake of the TV report. But Mr. Johnson said the company will be reviewing and reissuing existing policies "just as a reminder" to employees.
On the bottom line, he said, "There's no substitute" for adequate internal safeguards. "If you don't have it, you don't have anything."