Ok we have covered the ‘games’ and ‘regulation roulette’; What is our strategy for general safety in these supermarkets? Well ...
General Supermarket Food Safety
Just as in a restaurant, grocery store food safety starts with the managers and employees. But your own observations can help you decide if you should be shopping there. Groceries, markets, supermarkets and the like, enable us to make choices. In a restaurant, we rarely get to say, “I want THAT steak”, or see the product in uncooked form before it is placed in front of us. But in the grocery, we can pick and choose, at least up to a point.
How do you know which grocery stores are the safest? It depends on a number of factors, including your area, the competition, the staffing and the store itself. Most big chain stores are fairly safe, because safety issues will put their name on the line. Yet, this doesn’t stop them from selling chemical laden produce or GMO products, however, when it comes to the ‘common sense’ safety factors it generally does. Just remember that these stores can be staffed by people who let safety slip. An individually owned, local store might have impeccable standards, since it is a personal business; on the other hand, it may have little money to deal with broken coolers and other safety problems. In the grocery business, the profit on every dollar in sales amounts to only pennies. It’s a tough business for anyone to be in.
While grocery stores vary in size and style – from the corner market to the convenience store to the super-mega-mart to the specialty shop – they all have risks that we should look out for. Consider the following:
Are the cold foods less than cold, or the hot foods less than hot? Germs like to grow at certain temperatures. But, generally speaking, germ growth is halted or reduced when temperatures are below 40˚F (4.5˚C) or above 135˚F (60˚C). If the food that should be cold (meat, chicken, fish, etc.) is not really cold, and/or if the refrigerator they’re in feels warm to the touch, you might want to be worried. Check what the thermometer in the case says. Most retail coolers are set at the proper temperature, but the cooler may have broken. Whenever you notice this, you’ll want to let the management know (it might have happened recently and they may not be aware). Unhappily, you will have to wonder how long the food has been sitting at a wrong temperature; it might be long enough for germs to have gained a foothold and created a problem for anyone who wants to eat it. (Be aware that some food items are packaged or designed to be able to sit at different temperatures.) Likewise, food that is warm or lukewarm when it should be hot has been sitting and cooling… how long? You don’t know. You might not want to take a chance.
The 'Cold Line' or 'load limit' of open air refrigerated/freezer cases. In the dairy and egg section this is typically called the 'cold line'. This is a colored line painted on by manufacturers. If you see eggs stacked above this line, know that these eggs can sweat, igniting possible bacterial growth and milk or cheese may get a shade too warm and spoil quicker. In the freezer section anything stacked above this colored line is suspect as it could thaw, refreeze, thaw, refreeze and that is a big bacterial no-no.
Do you see a mouse, rat or roach running across the aisle? No, the mice are not valued customers; they’re looking for free meals under racks, under counters, in back storage rooms, or anywhere else. While they search, they spread the germs they carry to everything they touch, eat, or go to the bathroom on (remember, they have no bladder control!). Most of the time such uninvited patrons prefer to search at night when no one is around (they are probably very scared of you); their being seen in the daytime may be an indication that there are many of them. If you see one of these critters “shopping” with you, you know that the location has not taken pest control seriously and that there are problems! If you have no choice but to shop at that store, check each each of your food items very carefully for any kind of damage – any tears, chewed appearance, or blemishes. Do not buy anything the least bit damaged.
Are parts of the store dirty? Being human we all have ‘off days’ however if you see a trend after several trips where the store just looks dirty or disorganized – shop someplace else. If you feel up to it, tell the manager what you see and why you are going elsewhere.
Health inspectors routinely visit supermarkets to look out for the red flags that may signal unsafe conditions for your food. But you can do a little snooping yourself. Flies in the produce or meat departments could be depositing bacteria on raw food. Sticky goo on bottled or canned goods could mean a contaminated package leaked onto other packages. Roaches scurrying across the floor could also be harboring dozens of different diseases. And of course, check the shelves and products for dirt and grime—cans that are covered in dust may be an indication that they've sat around past their shelf life.
If the service areas or public restrooms look pretty bad, the areas where employees handle your food may look the same. On the other hand, don’t confuse customer-created trash with dirty locations. Customers always create trash (especially during rush periods) and it does get cleaned up. However, if you observe built-up debris or dirt on shelves, in coolers, or in other areas, keep your eyes open for problems – including the pests that the debris attracts.
Canned food in the discounted product area – the cans with the dents and missing labels. Some local health departments do not allow these to be sold. If it is allowed in your area, you need to know that you are shopping at your own risk. The dents are a sign that the can was mishandled. The can’s lining (which you can’t see) might be damaged. A damaged lining can cause the food to go bad or develop germs. It can also be a sign of a VERY serious bacteria called botulism. Botulism bacteria create a deadly toxin (poison) in the food. So while the discount might be appealing, it isn’t the best idea to purchase any damaged cans.
As far as a missing label is concerned, it comes down to how adventurous you are. You’ll be buying something at a huge discount, but you won’t know what it is, when or where it came from, or how long it sat on the shelf. While canning is a perfectly good way to preserve food for a long time, it won’t stay good forever, and you don’t know the expiration date. Without the label, you’re playing Russian Roulette with your food.
In the Produce Section: Many markets and grocery stores have produce departments. This is where you can pick up vegetables, fruits, and fresh juices. Many of them also offer pre-made salads for a quick, healthy lunch or dinner. Produce departments come in all sizes, and the range of products differs.
- Most produce items are offered to the customers as “raw” products. This means that you should take them home and immediately wash them before cooking them BEFORE you eat them! The strawberries, the lettuces, anything unpackaged should be cleaned before you do anything else with it. Popping a grape into your mouth as you pass the section might be safe, but not smart. Think how many people may have already touched that grape with their dirty hands.
- Speaking of touching things, include floors. If you see a piece of produce hit the floor and then see a customer put it back, it’s not a red flag. But it’s something to notice. Although many consumers don’t realize it, most grocery stores have a policy that anything un-packaged that touches the floor must be thrown away. That doesn’t help the store – it definitely hurts profits – but overall it is wise. Often, a customer may pick up a peach or a carrot off the floor and put it back where it belongs, thinking it’s the right thing to do. You don’t need to be stressed out about it, but you might want to point it out to an employee.
Do the prepared salads, sprouts, or the cut melons feel warm (or at least not cold)? Prepared salads often contain proteins like chicken, ham or cooked eggs. Cut melon pieces can grow bacteria (usually E-coli or Salmonella) if the melons haven’t been washed properly before cutting. Both of these items should be kept at 41 ˚ F (5 ˚ C) or lower; if they aren’t, germs may be going crazy. It might not be happening in every instance – but you can’t tell just by looking. If the products have been warm for a while (and how long HAVE they been warm?), they could send you to the emergency room.
Do you see any rotting or molding fruits, vegetables, or lettuces? Just don’t buy them! The same freshness that is the hallmark of the produce section is also its bane. Produce just doesn’t stay fresh long – most items are good for only 3 or 4 days from the time they’re set out for customers. Leave the bad ones out of your cart. You might want to point them out to the produce employees, just to be nice.
The produce department is one of the simpler ones in the store! Just look for freshness and be sure to clean/prepare those fruits and veggies before you eat them.
Meat Department: As you know, most supermarkets and grocery stores have meat departments, where you can pick up packaged or 'freshly' (we already covered the Freezing Switch) cut steaks, chicken, chops, and other meats to take home to cook on your grill, your stove top, or your oven. In many cases, a meat-cutting employee can help you find the best cuts of meat for the price you want to pay.
The area where meat cutters cut and wrap the steaks and meats is usually a refrigerated prep room. Talk about a “cool” job! This enables the meat to stay at the proper temperatures (and avoid growing any germs) while they work.
You may have noticed that meat cutters look messy! Don’t worry about it. Their aprons or coats often pick up blood as they are cutting up the beef. However, if you see a employee with a dry, crusty coat (in other words, it looks as if it has been worn for a few days straight) you have reason to be concerned.
Does the meat look spoiled? You do have to remember here that red meat is NOT naturally bright red. Don’t buy any meat that looks the least bit “funny” to you! Old meat looks grey, green, or brown, depending on the cut. Don’t just go by the “use-by” date; spoiled meat could be “in date.” The discoloration is the clue. Even if the price is very good, don’t mess with it! If you’re uncertain, do this: ask for a second opinion on the piece or package of meat from the meat department employee or the grocery store manager, and watch the reaction. Unhappily, if you have any doubt that they are telling you the truth, you’d better not shop there.
Does the package in the cooler feel warm (or at least not cool)? When you’re shopping for meat, you get to touch the packaging. You should expect all meat coolers to hold products at 41 ˚ F (5 ˚ C) or lower. While you don’t have to carry a thermometer around, it’s something you can check yourself. If you reach into a cooler and the product doesn’t feel cold to the touch, touch the package below it or beside it – even if that isn’t a product you intend to buy. Sometimes the heat from lights can make the top package feel just a little warm. But if all the products feel warmer than they should, you might want to ask questions. If no one is around to ask, go get some other items on your grocery list, come back to the meat department, and check again. If you still think that the cooler is not cold enough, it’s best not to buy. Your final test would be to check the thermometer – usually located around the back or top of the cooler – and see what it says.
Does a meat department employee help you without washing hands first? What’s the difference? It depends on what the person is doing for you. If you notice that an employee is cutting meat, and that person comes up to help you without washing his or her hands, AND he or she touches the meat you want to buy, your food is receiving blood, juices and possibly germs. If the food handler is touching something raw that you’re going to cook; if he or she is touching something ready to eat (already cooked and not going to be cooked again, such as cooked crab or shrimp). If the employee puts on gloves, at least that a small barrier, but there’s still a lot of risk involved; ask questions and make your best judgment. (Always feel free to ask questions! Good employees and managers like questions.)
The Store Deli: The Deli is one of the highest risks for problems in a grocery store when it comes to food safety. As you undoubtedly know, many groceries have deli (delicatessen) counters. There you find the higher-quality meats, cheeses, salads, side items, and specialty products. Sometimes you’ll also find hot food (like chicken or meatloaf) that is easy to take home to supper or to take out to the picnic. Often the deli employees will fresh-slice cheeses and meats for you at your request.
Oddly enough, the biggest risk with deli food is that it is considered ready-to-eat (ready to put in your mouth without any extra preparation or steps)! In other words, you’re not planning to cook or wash it again; it goes basically straight into your mouth. Cooking a steak or washing your lettuce is a step that helps your food to be safer. However, when it’s going to go straight into your mouth, there might be a higher safety risk.
So here are a few suggestions about your deli purchases:
- When you shop, make sure that you select your hot items last, especially if you’re driving a long distance to get home. Even having those hot items in your grocery cart with other foods (especially cold food) will drop the temperature of the hot items and raise the temps of the cold ones.
- Don’t allow the hot foods to sit out at room temperature for very long. Letting them sit on the picnic or pot luck table for a few hours might be convenient, but it could also allow the food to grow dangerous germs that could put you at risk. To find out more about food safety at picnics.
Do you see employees handling food with bare hands? If I handle your food with my bare hands, that food (which is going straight into your mouth) also carries anything that was on my hands – including whatever I touched before I handled your food. Most deli departments require their employees to wear disposable gloves to avoid accidentally transferring anything (other food items, germs, or chemicals) to your food. Never forget those cooties!
Do you see food handlers not washing their hands? Depending whether they are wearing gloves, not washing is not so bad. No glove and not washing and I would go somewhere else. If you notice any employees walking into the deli and beginning to work without washing hands, this warns you that hand washing is not a focus in this department. The problem? You don’t know what the person was doing a few minutes before! Maybe he or she was handling trash, going to the restroom (and washing or not washing hands after wards), or out on break. The fact that you don’t know is enough for you to think twice about buying food here.
Are the hot foods hot? Not really? The risk is even higher with deli items than in the general store area, especially if you are dealing with hot items ready to go. See if the packaging states how long ago the hot foods were put in the self-service case. Anything that has sat longer than three to four hours may have cooled down to below 135 °F (60 °C). That makes it risky to eat. In addition, chicken that sits out for a long time becomes dried out and tough. Ask the deli employees if they have anything fresher coming out; if they don’t, it might be smarter to purchase a cold chicken or meat dish and reheat it yourself.
Next time, last but not least - some tips on Saving Monies at the supermarket ;-}