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 are in business to provide you with food items that you can eat at home, at a picnic, at the office, at school, or anywhere else.
These stores enable you to make choices. In a restaurant, you rarely get to say, “I want THAT steak,” or see the product in uncooked form before it is placed in front of you. But in the grocery, you can pick and choose.
Are the cold foods less than cold, or the hot foods less than hot? This is a Red Flag #5. 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.
Do you see a mouse, rat or roach running across the aisle? This is a Red Flag #7. 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 one 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? This is a Red Flag #3. 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.
Here are another couple of things to look out for as well:
1: I’m often asked about the 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.
2: Expiration dates are printed on labels and boxes to let you know that the manufacturer guarantees the food to be fresh up to that point. Some stores discount food items close to their expiration dates, in order to get the food sold before they have to throw it out and lose money. This can be an economical way to shop… but take care that you use the food quickly! Most people believe that milk and eggs are still good to use a few days after the expiration date, but it is not recommended; you are consuming them at your own risk. Be smart. If you can use it, or freeze it right away, it might be worth the risk; if you can’t, don’t mess with it.
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 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.
Use these Red Flags, study your local health department inspections, and keep your eyes open when you shop.
For specific Red Flags in the produce, meat, and deli departments, click on each department.