How Clean Is Your Favorite Grocery Store?

There is a lot of information out there about the safe preparation and storage of food, but most of it is related to either where the food is grown or manufactured (farms, factories, etc.) or where it is prepared and consumed (home, restaurants – even food trucks).

However, it’s rare to see information about food safety when it comes to middlemen. Thankfully, Sample6 – a company that is working to change the way food safety is implemented through the entire supply chain – is talking about this very important aspect of food safety.

In a recent blog post, Sample6 discussed food safety measures in grocery stores. And, well, it’s probably not the pleasantest thing you will read today. (Then again, with the impending election, maybe it will be….) Granted, we’re not talking Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle levels of ick here, but there are some unpleasantries that it would be wise to consider the next time you fill up your grocery cart.

Sample6 uses recent scientific studies to point out some of the “hotspots” for food-related safety issues in grocery stores. Some of them are things that you would probably think about if you were at home, but might be less inclined to consider when out and about. Others will probably stop and make you really think about your own behavior while shopping.

Some of the dangers that Sample6 points out are summarized below.

Refrigeration

If you haven’t heard of the food “Danger Zone” then 1) you haven’t read our previous food safety posts, and 2) you should probably become familiar with it real quick. Basically, between 40°F and 140°F, bacteria grows much more quickly on food. As long as refrigerated food is kept in the refrigerated section of the store, it’s going to be fine. However, once you take it out of the refrigerated case, it’s going to start cooling down, and that bacteria’s gonna start getting busy.

That means if you’re picking up your milk, eggs, and packaged meat first, before pushing your cart down the dry goods and canned food aisles, you might want to reconsider your route through the store. Sample6 even suggests bringing a cool with you to help cold items stay that way – at least while you’re in the store.

And when you’re done, it’s probably a good idea to go straight home and put your food in the refrigerator or freezer, where it will stop the bacteria growing process. Leaving it in the car will just get those bacteria even more excited.

Packaging and Expiration Dates

How often do you check the expiration date on your food? Ideally, you would at the very least check it before you use it at home! But an even better idea is to check it at the store. Ideally, store employees would pull items when the expire, but that isn’t always the case, so be sure to give every bottle, can, box, and other packaging a quick look before purchasing it. For bonus karma points, let a manager know if you find something that is expired, so the next customer won’t be put in danger of getting sick either.

Also, make sure to check how your food items are packaged. Raw meat packaging can leak, and wrapping each item in a separate plastic bag can help prevent cross-contamination. Also, if a milk or juice bottle feels sticky, that may mean it or another bottle has been broken or punctured. Anything that has packaging that can be easily opened should also be checked carefully, such as eggs.

You should also become familiar with how long things are generally expected to last. Fresh meat, vegetables, eggs, juice, milk, and other refrigerated items are probably not going to last very long, so make sure you can use it all before it expires. Boxed and canned food can last longer time, but not forever, and being aware of its shelf-life is important.

Avoid Standing Water

If there’s any food kept in stagnant water, avoid it like the plague – because it might have a plague (of bacteria, that is). Even if it’s cold water from melting ice, it can still become infested with airborne bacteria or, worse, bacteria from people’s hands as they reach in to grab something.

This also goes for things kept in warm water, too. Remember, the danger zone goes all the way up to 140°F – which means if you’re reaching your hand in to pull something out and not feeling any pain, then the water probably isn’t hot enough to be staving off bacteria. (But don’t test water temperature by reaching your hand in…that would be bad.)

That said, water that is being filtered and churned, such as in a lobster tank, should be okay, so long as the filter is changed on schedule. If you’re not sure, you can always ask a manager – or go somewhere else.

Trust Most of Your Senses

It’s always good to inspect your food before buying it, but don’t depend solely on your sight to determine if something has gone, or is going, bad. You can’t see bacteria with your eyes – at least, not without the aid of a microscope or other detection method…and it’s impractical to carry one of those to the grocery store with you. Therefore, you will need to rely on your other senses (except taste, since that’s usually frowned upon in grocery stores).

This is especially true for produce. Fruit and vegetable that are starting to go bad will feel and smell different, even if they look perfectly fine. They might feel a little softer or squishier, or they might have a rotten, sort of sweet smell to them. Using multiple senses to determine whether something is worth buying is a good way to go.

Watch Those Hands

Of course, if you’re picking up all the produce and squeezing it, it’s probably safe to say – or rather, unsafe to say – that a bunch of other people are as well. How often do you go into a grocery store and pick up the first, and only the first, item that you see? Chances are, not only have several other customers picked up that item, but so have employees, delivery persons, and others going all the way back to some factory worker or farm hand.

While you don’t have any control over the people who touched everything before you, you can control the cleanliness of your own hands. Wash your hands before you go shopping, and then again when you’re done. And if you make a pit stop in the bathroom while you’re at the grocery store, do I really need to remind you to wash your hands then, too? Well, I just did…

Oh, and by the way, shopping carts are veritable havens for germs of all stripes. A lot of grocery stores now have wipes and/or sanitizer near the entrance where you pick up a cart. Why not give that cart handle a swipe with sanitizer before heading into the store? And when you’re filling the cart up, make sure the food is protected, either with it’s own packaging or by putting produce and other loose items inside a bag.

Follow Food Safety Practices Everywhere

Assuming you haven’t decided to simply give up on grocery stores altogether, the real secret to food safety while shopping is really very similar to everywhere else:

  • Look, feel, and smell for signs of cross-contamination or bacteria growth.
  • Keep your hands (and anything else that might touch food) clean.
  • Don’t let food fall in the temperature danger zone.

Thanks to Sample6 for sharing these important reminders for the next time we go out shopping!