I visited 12 grocery stores in the Kansas City area the evening that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked another E. coli outbreak to romaine, and the Nov. 20 trip was far more revealing than I expected.
At the first few stops, all the romaine was gone and signs were posted, just as I had expected. Ten of the 12 stores had pulled all or most of their romaine.
At several other stores, signs were posted but some romaine remained. In fact, three of the 10 stores that had pulled romaine had missed several items. At each of those locations, I explained to the closest employee that I had heard about the advisory and inquired why there were still some romaine items for sale.
The responses I received varied by store.
One person, restocking a produce display, said he was not aware of anything happening related to romaine and suggested I talk with customer service.
Another person, working on a display adjacent to the produce department, said employees had been pulling products throughout the day and were still working on it.
A third person, also stocking a produce display, followed me to the wet rack to see the product I had mentioned, acknowledged the error, apologized profusely, thanked me for pointing out the mistake, and promptly went to grab a cart and remove the romaine items.
Clearly, that final response is the gold standard (aside from the fact that ideally the product would not have been there in the first place).
The experience really hammered home for me the importance of educating employees about what to say to shoppers about recalls or food safety advisories.
At the very least, it should be a big red flag to grab a manager when a shopper asks why a product under a food safety alert is still on the shelf.
I understand that retailers are stretched thin when it comes to personnel, but food safety is so critical that communication about it has to be a priority.
“Let me find you someone who will know” is an infinitely better response than a de facto “I don’t know.”
Two places I found people clearly communicating about romaine were Sam’s Club and Walmart, which had not pulled any products from shelves when I visited. The employees there said the company was waiting to see if its specific products were affected and said sometimes that information takes some time to come through.
Those responses were surprising, of course, since the CDC advisory was for all romaine. I saw Walmart pulling products when I returned the next morning.
Needless to say, the stores that impressed me on my trip were the ones that had pulled all romaine and informed shoppers with signs about why those shelves were empty.
Food safety should be ubiquitous, but communication about it can be a real differentiator.
Ashley Nickle is editor of Produce Retailer magazine and retail editor for The Packer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.