Cheese Focus: Food Safety: 8 Key Tips for the Cheese Counter

Cheese Focus: Food Safety: 8 Key Tips for the Cheese Counter

Top cheese retailers share some of their best food safety advice on everything from employee training to sanitation procedures to temperature monitoring. 

Among the many concerns that can keep a retailer awake at night is the prospect of selling contaminated food. Operating at a profit is important, but operating safely is even more so. The deaths and illness traced to cheese from New York’s Vulto Creamery last year raised alarms and convinced many retailers to review and tighten sanitation procedures. Unfortunately, a merchant looking for guidance relevant to cheese-counter operations will not find much.

The American Cheese Society is developing some web-based materials to guide cheese retailers in safer food handling. Sarah Spira, content manager for ACS, expects to have resources available sometime this year. In the meantime, interviews with retailers highlighted some common practices that may not be, but probably should be, standard operating procedure.

  1. Keep a receiving log. Create your own or ask other merchants to share their template. Record every incoming cheese: invoice date, source, batch number or lot code if available, and anything amiss such as an atypical odor or smashed box. Quarantine anything that’s suspect. If the cheese was on a refrigerated truck, you probably don’t need to record its temperature, although some retailers say they are heading that way. Laura Downey, co-owner of Fairfield Cheese Company and Greenwich Cheese Company, both in Connecticut, says that a small, local distributor once dropped off an order in his Subaru. “Part of me knew it was probably fine, but I refused it,” says Downey. 
  2. Create sanitation procedures and log each activity. Then scrutinize the log. Sanitizers lose potency over time and need frequent monitoring. A staffer should test the solution every couple of hours—more if it looks questionable—and note when it was changed. “If it’s not recorded, it hasn’t happened,” says Kate Arding, co-owner of Talbott & Arding Cheese and Provisions in Hudson, New York. At the Cowgirl Creamery shops in San Francisco and Point Reyes, California, managers complete a daily sanitation checklist; supervisors review the forms weekly and flag any incomplete information.

    Clean your cheese wire between cheeses. If you’re using a knife, use a sanitized one for each cheese. At Talbott & Arding, used knives go immediately into a sanitizer tub so a monger won’t be tempted to re-use it until it comes back from the dishwasher.

    Some retailers use color-coded knives, boards, and wires for different styles of cheese, like washed-rinds and blues. Others use paper to avoid contact between cheese and cutting board, minimizing the chance of cross-contamination. No busy store can sanitize boards between every customer, but you can implement a two-hour rotation.

    Thoroughly clean cheese cases weekly, at a minimum. Take everything out. Sanitize all surfaces, then reset the case. 

  3. Monitor and record refrigeration temperatures. “We check our walk-in and our reach-ins four times a day,” says Maureen Cunnie, operations manager for Tomales Bay Foods, which operates the Cowgirl Creamery shops. At Antonelli’s Cheese Shop in Austin, electronic gauges record the cheese case and walk-in temperatures every 15 minutes—costly technology for a small shop but worth it, says owner John Antonelli.
  4. Set standards for employee hygiene and enforce them. Long hair pulled back. Scrubbed, unpolished fingernails. Clean clothes and clean aprons. These expectations are standard practice in foodservice, but managers often let lapses pass. Louise Kennedy Converse, owner of Artisan Cheese Company in Sarasota, Florida, requires employees to take their aprons off if they go outside. She also bans cell phones, personal food, and beverages behind the counter. No customer wants to see a monger noshing and then return to cutting cheese.
  5. Teach hand washing: the how and the when. “If people are new to food work, they don’t realize how easily they can contaminate a product,” says Cunnie. New Cowgirl employees are taught to scrub their hands for as long as it takes to recite the alphabet. Florida is a “glove state,” with no direct contact allowed between food and hands. Still, says Converse, employees are constantly washing up. “You handle money; you wash your hands. You touch your face; you wash your hands. You come behind the counter; you wash your hands,” says Converse. “We have no fingerprints left.”

    Downey has similar hand-washing policies and her team members gently police each other because it’s so easy to get distracted and forget.

  6. Review your sampling procedures. Sampling is a huge part of selling, but don’t bare-hand it. Put the sample on a small square of deli paper, then hand it to the customer. Converse uses attractive wooden paddles that her woodworker husband made. Each customer gets a clean paddle, and Converse’s fingers never touch the cheese. “If I’m sampling at the same time, I put my sample on a toothpick,” says the monger.

    Passive sampling is more problematic from a hygiene perspective, although it definitely moves cheese, says Arding. She keeps the sampling station near the cheese counter so she can monitor it for egregious customer behavior. If you do passive sampling, keep a dome on the cheese and clean toothpicks front and center.

  7. Seek advice from colleagues and observe what others do. Most retailers are happy to share their practices, even with near competitors. If a customer is sickened, the whole cheese community suffers. Do reconnaissance at other cheese and deli counters, taking note of good practices and bad. 

    “Thinking from the vantage point of the customer has helped me be better behind the counter,” says Converse. “I’m constantly making a mental note of what others do well and what isn’t happening, and I bring that information into my store.”

  8. Lead by example. A food safety plan is only as good as the people who follow it, says Downey. “You can have all these rules and a really robust plan, but you have to train and remind. And if I’m telling people they have to do it this way, I better be doing it as well.” 

Janet Fletcher writes the email newsletter “Planet Cheese” and is the author of Cheese & Wine and Cheese & Beer.