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Willy Street Co-op Food Safety & Beyond

Step into the Co-op and the signs are all around you:


Some of us are old enough to remember when the butter dish never left thetable, no one ever got sick from eating Uncle Bob’s homemade venison salami (produced under dubious sanitary conditions), Mom’s fresh Caesar dressing contained a raw egg, and the kids waited eagerly to devour cookie dough left on the mixing bowl and beaters. Restaurants once served rare steaks and hamburgers without cautionary warnings! Now, labels and signs with safety-related directions, warnings, and essential information are pervasive on the foods we buy. Have you ever wondered where it all comes from?

We want to keep you informed about food safety and how the Co-op responds in specific ways to food-related laws, regulations and requirements. To do so in a comprehensive fashion would take much more ink than one Reader article, and possibly bore you to tears or cause your eyes to glaze over with information overload. So, this article is of necessity an overview of the topic and our processes; it presents some emerging political issues, and new findings about reusable grocery bags that you should be aware of. Check out for links to the Federal Food Safety website, a portal to nearly all things food safety, and to the FDA recalls page. Our Facebook page also provides timely news and tips on home food processing and preparation, and food politics and issues. And, our store managers and staff always welcome your questions.

A Very Brief History of State and Federal Regulations
Wisconsin’s state motto, Forward, was chosen to reflect its desire to be a national leader. It should come as no surprise that Wisconsin adopted laws governing food purity and adulteration as early as 1839, prior to statehood, then again after statehood in 1848. A food-related agency and chief, with broad powers and charges, was established in 1889, 16 years ahead of the 1906 Federal Food and Drug Act. Wisconsin’s early laws were driven by the needs of the dairy industry, but encompassed many foods for sale in the state. The office of the State Dairy and Food Commissioner, with a Commissioner appointed by the Governor, was thus created “to enforce all laws that now exist, or that may hereafter be enacted in this state regarding the production, manufacture or sale of dairy products, or the adulteration of any article of food or drink or of any drug; “(Laws of 1889, ch. 425, sec 1). As president of the National Association of Dairy and Food Commissioners, the pioneering work of the first Wisconsin Commissioner was later incorporated into the Federal laws. Wisconsin also passed laws, by the end of the second decade of the 20th century, regulating meat, food adulteration and additives, and licensing and inspection of bakeries, canneries, butter and cheese factories, and other food handling businesses. In 1915 the state created the Department of Agriculture, with authority to regulate plant pests and diseases, animal sanitation, and commercial feed, seed and pesticides. Over time the Dairy and Food Commissioner, Department of Agriculture, Department of Markets, and the Treasury Agent were combined to become the modern Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP.) The DATCP “has broad jurisdiction over the entire food chain, from land to consumer, and broad authority related to business practices and competition. The department exercises a broad array of rulemaking, licensing, investigation and enforcement powers.” The DATCP also regulates and inspects nearly all meat processing facilities, and conducts independent lab testing of foods and feeds.

The DATCP regulates most of the “food chain” in the state, except restaurants, hotels and vending machine commissaries; these are licensed and inspected by the Department of Health Services (DHS). The DHS also handles epidemiological aspects of food borne illnesses. Both agencies have entered into partnerships with local agencies to conduct inspections of food establishments on behalf of the State.
Dane County’s licensed food establishments are inspected by the city-county agency called Public HealthMadison and Dane County. County health personnel inspect the two Co-op stores and in-store Delis at least once a year. The State DATCP licenses and inspects the Production Kitchen located on East Main. The Production Kitchen produces and transports nearly all the delicious offerings found on our hot and cold bars, the Willy Pack items, grab and go salads, baked goods, and food for the catering service. We are a large food processor, a grocery store, and food handlers in the eyes of the regulators.

Federal Laws and Regulations
As many as 15 different Federal agencies administer federal food laws, but the majority of the funding and staff reside in the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service regulates most of our meat, poultry, and processed egg products, estimated at about 20% of the dollar value of the food supply; all other foods are under the purview of the FDA. These agencies have the principal responsibility for setting rules, regulations and standards for food products, including labeling; these standards are in turn incorporated into state food laws and, in Wisconsin, implemented through state and local agencies. The Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Trade Commission also have important roles in the food safety system.

New and noteworthy, The FDA Food Safety and Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama in January 2011, is the most significant expansion of food safety requirements and FDA food safety authorities since 1938. It grants FDAa number of new powers, including mandatory recall authority, and expanded pathogen detection testing of foods for regulatory purposes. The FSMA requires FDA to undertake more than a dozen rulemakings and issue a host of new reports, standards, notices, and other tasks over the next several years. A controversy exists at the moment over the delayed completion and release of some of the Act’s implementation measures.

The FDA publishes a Food Code every four years. The 2009 Food Code is the product of collaboration with food industry, research, academic, government and consumer groups to “safeguard public health and provide to consumers food that is safe, unadulterated, and honestly presented.”(Sec. 1-102.10) It “establishes definitions; sets standards for management and personnel, food operations, and equipment and facilities; and provides for food establishment plan review, permit issuance, inspection, employee restriction, and permit suspension.” (Sec. 1-103.10) The Code is a standard, not a law, but states are encouraged to, and 49 of them have incorporated or adopted the Federal Code into their food safety laws. The Wisconsin Food Code is basically our operating manual and regulatory playbook.

The alphabet soup above refers to a plan, a category of regulated foods, and a process for monitoring foods to insure product safety. All three apply to the daily operation of the Production Kitchen and other food handlers in our stores. Now, to decode the acronyms…

HACCP: Stands for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, a written food safety management system, or program, customized for a food handling business. Our HACCP is reviewed annually and is part of our Production Kitchen approval/licensing process. The plan identifies and evaluates potential hazards, or critical points, in the food-making process, describes how the hazards will be controlled, and how the effectiveness of the methods will be verified and documented. The HACCP plan outlines the procedures used by the food processor on a regular, repetitive basis to insure safe food handling.

PHFs are Potentially Hazardous Foods, a category of food that “requires time/temperature control for safety (TCS)” to limit the growth of hazardous microorganisms.” (2009 FDA Food Code) In Wisconsin the category is also called PHS/TCS foods. PHFs include meat, poultry and cooked vegetable items like rice and potatoes.

TCS stands for time/temperature control for safety. A TCS food needs to be cooked to safe temperatures for a minimum period of time, and cooled to or held at safe temperatures for a specified period of time. Uncooked TCS foods have minimum holding temperature requirements.

All these temperature and time standards are in the Wisconsin Food Code, and used daily by our staff in the Production Kitchen and Delis. Angelika Matthews, our Kitchen Manager, gave me an example of how we would handle a hot dish made with TCS foods: The dish, for example a stew containing protein and vegetables, is first cooked to the proper temperature. By law we have 6 hours to cool it to 40 degrees for holding/transport. The cooks “pan out” their dishes in shallow pans for refrigeration, then “temp” the dish hourly, keeping a written log of temperatures. If the dish doesn’t cool by the six-hour time limit it is tossed out, but we have rapid cooling methods and special equipment to avoid this. Chilled food is transported to stores in our refrigerated truck and immediately put back into coolers. Nothing stays out of refrigeration for more than a few minutes. On the store end hot foods are reheated to proper temperatures, placed on the hot bar and “temped” regularly. You may have seen staff taking the temperature of hot dishes and soups at our west side store.

PHS/TCP foods coming into the Co-op from outside vendors are also temped by receivers for safety, and may be refused if they do not meet state standards.

Thermometers are our weapons of choice on the battlefield of food safety!

What about labeling?
State and federal laws and regulations dictate food labeling on all the commercial products the Coop sells, and the food we make and sell under our own label, including packaged, bulk, and freshly made foods like salads and baked goods. Some of the requirements date back to the 1930s and some have been incorporated into the Food Code. In 1990 the federal Nutritional Labeling and Education Act ushered in the age of labels showing calories, fat content, etc. that we are now so accustomed to. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, which took effect in 2006, requires label disclosure of eight common food allergens in “Contains” statements separate from ingredient lists. Both these laws are incorporated into Wisconsin statutes. The “safe handling” stickers on meats, chicken and eggs are also legally mandated items. And finally, the Country of Origin Labeling provisions (part of the 2002 Farm Bill) which took effect in 2009 require origin labeling of unprocessed fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, meats, shellfish, fish and a few other miscellaneous commodities.

Our in-house prepared foods are coded for labels by trained staff of the Flow of Goods (FoG) department. Products we sell are assigned a unique number, usually a PLU (price look-up code) that allows the item to be rung up at the register and records the sale in our data system. When the Production Kitchen develops a new fresh dish or bakery item, it needs a new PLU or similar code to sell the item. The Kitchen submits the recipe to FoG, FoG verifies the ingredients are in our computer data base, and inputs them to be printed on the label per state law. Other attributes, like product name, use by date, and price, are also assigned to the PLU. When the code is entered into the labeling machine it always prints only the data connected to that code.

Country of Origin labeling is most obvious in the Produce Department. Here, the managers, buyers and stockers work together to ensure correct information goes on the shelf signs. Buyers receive origin information from our regional distributors; this is communicated to staff that receive daily notations as to products with changing origins. When product is shelved the boxes are double-checked for origin informationand signed accordingly. The Co-op goes beyond the labeling laws by indicating the U.S. state of origin, and, for much of our local produce, the farm. For a complete explanation of the Produce sign scheme see Andy Johnston’s September 2011 Reader article, available online at
Many products we sell have what I call negative labeling, statements of things the products do not contain or are not used by the farm or food producer, for example, no antibiotics, no rBST, no genetically engineered ingredients, no GMO ingredients, etc. These are voluntary statements on the part of the producer. But change may be coming due to a recently qualified California ballot proposition.

The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act, also known as the GMO labeling initiative, will appear on voter ballots as Proposition 37 in the November 6th elections.

If passed, Prop. 37 would make California the first state in the U.S. to require labeling of most foods made with genetically modified organisms, those given specific changes to their DNA through genetic engineering techniques. (See Lynn’s article on page 18 for more.) GE labeling is already required in nearly 50 countries, including all the EU states. The Right to Know campaign collected nearly one million signatures to put the initiative in the ballot, nearly twice the 550,000-signature requirement. Because of the size of the California market, it is generally expected that if manufacturers change national labeling practices to conform to California law, the effects will show up on products sold in other states as well. Needless to say this is shaping up to be a very Big Food fight. For information see We’ll post breaking Prop 37 news on the Willy Street Co-op Facebook page too. And, see Lynn Olson’s article on page 18 for more details.

Recalls happen. They happen to all kinds of human and animal foods, domestic and imported, to drugs and other non-food items. In the past two months there have been FDA recalls of foods ranging from packaged sliced apples to whey protein isolate. Food recalls are made when a product is suspected of or known to be contaminated with a pathogen that might cause human or animal illness, or the product has incorrect or missing label information, e.g., an undeclared allergen or the product contains foreign matter. The quantities and direct (and indirect) dollar cost of recalled food in North America are staggering.

This is not a happy topic for grocery stores, but it is certainly one we plan for. We have designated staff that subscribes to recalls lists and track recalls, and a detailed internal process for dealing promptly with the recall of a product we carry. Thanks to our Owner database, we go beyond what most stores can do and will call Owners with information and actions to take if you have purchased a recalled item.

Online Resources
As mentioned at the top of this article there are links to food safety resources on our webpage. For basic domestic information, the most useful is, subtitled “Your Gateway to Federal Food Safety Information.” The recalls and alerts of both the FDA and USDA are shown here, and various reports and recommendations issued by other relevant agencies like the Centers for Disease Control. You can also chat online in real time with a food safety expert.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has expansive food safety/nutrition/political action coverage at It is by far the best place for information and analysis of legislation, food policy, current hot topics, international news, and consumer action options.

UW Madison/UW Extension has a multi-faceted webpage, In addition to links to the usual state and federal agencies, they post various food-related training opportunities, and information on small scale processed food production and business development. This is a good source for Wisconsin-specific information.

Madison Waldorf School

Wisconsin Academy for Graduate Service Dogs

Mark E. Saunders, CFP