Supermarkets get letter-based grades for food safety

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John Cropley

Daily Gazette Reporter

ALBANY — State regulators have rolled out a new letter-based grading system for food safety at hundreds of stores across the state.

Supermarkets and other food retailers must prominently display the rating given to them by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets after inspections by the department’s Division of Food Safety and Inspection. The ratings, and their meanings, are:

A — No critical deficiencies found, store is in substantial compliance with rules.

B — Critical deficiencies (those creating a risk of foodborne illness) were found but were corrected at time of inspection.

C — Critical deficiencies were found but were not or could not be corrected.

The new rule took effect Jan 1. The department requires that the notice of inspection be posted in plain sight near each public entrance to a store; retailer face a $600 fine if they fail to comply.

Customers can also request their own copies of the inspection notice.

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The department said the grades will help customers better understand the sanitary conditions in stores and provide store owners with an educational opportunity.

Agriculture and Markets made the change after meeting with stakeholders, including the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, which has 800 corporate members ranging from supermarkets and convenience stores to wholesalers and cooperatives.

Three major Capital Region food retailers: Price Chopper/Market 32, Hannaford and Stewart’s Shops, all support the new requirements.

Mona Golub, spokeswoman for Price Chopper and Market 32 parent Golub Corp., said it’s a small expansion of existing rules. Supermarkets already were inspected and already were posting the cover page of the inspection reports — behind the customer service counter, in Golub’s case.

The only change is the letter rating, she said, and Golub Corp. endorses it because it will increase customers’ understanding of sanitary conditions in stores.

“We fully support ratings and designations that inform customers of our high food-safety standards,” Golub said.

Likewise, Hannaford said public awareness is a good thing.

“We are confident in our food safety practices and welcome any system that makes those efforts clear to consumers,” spokesman Eric Blom said.

Convenience store giant Stewart’s Shops said the move is a positive change for the consumer. It won’t change anything at the stores, but if it improves customers’ understanding, Stewart’s supports it.

Food Industry Alliance President and CEO Michael Rosen said there are two broad types of food safety:

The first is beyond the direct control of the retailer — state and federal recalls of products produced elsewhere and found to have problems.

“When we get those notices, we pull the product,” he said.

The second is proper hygiene, food storage and food preparation on the store’s part.

“Those are issues under our control,” he said. “Our members take safety very seriously.”

Larger companies have professionals who do nothing but set and maintain safety standards, he added.

“We have a food safety committee that meets with the Department [of Agriculture and Markets] several times a year,” Rosen said. “We have a pretty good story to tell.”

The Department of Agriculture and Markets’ Division of Food Safety and Inspectioninspects the state’s food retailers at least once a year, looking for critical and general deficiencies.

Critical deficiencies are those that could lead to foodborne illnesses, such as problems with food condition, cooking and storage temperatures, or employee sanitary practices. Even critical deficiency precludes an A rating under the new rules.

General deficiencies are those that are not health threats but could negatively affect operation of the store, such as its design, maintenance and cleanliness. Stores can have general deficiencies and still earn an A rating.

Food Safety and Inspection is the largest division of Agriculture and Markets, with about 150 full-time employees.

Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard Ball said in a prepared statement: “Consumers want to know now more than ever about their food, including how it was handled from farm to table. That means our retail food establishments need to be doing their part, making sure they are implementing good food safety practices and posting the results of their inspection in a location visible to all consumers. We hope this change will not only inform consumers but also help educate our store owners.”