Food Safety at the Grocery Store Meat Department

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Grocery Store Food SafetyAs you know, most supermarkets and grocery stores have meat departments, where you can pick up packaged or freshly 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.

Recently, in the United States, a process called Country of Origin Labeling (or COOL) was required by the USDA. This can let you, the consumer, know more about where your meat is coming from. Click here for more info.

In addition to the general observations that we’ve listed for grocery stores (click here), there are some special Red Flags for this department.

Food Safety Risk FlagDoes the meat look spoiled? This is a Red Flag #6. 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.

Food Safety Risk FlagDoes the package in the cooler feel warm (or at least not cool)? This is a Red flag #6. 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.

Food Safety Risk FlagFood Safety Risk FlagDoes a meat department employee help you without washing hands first? That’s a Red Flag #4 or #8. 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, then it’s a Red Flag #4; 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), then it’s a Red Flag #8. 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.)

To head over to the produce department, click here.

To find out if you’re keeping that food safe at your own home, click here.

To forget about cooking and head over to the deli, click here.

To learn how the health department looks out for you by inspecting grocery stores, click here.

To decide how you’re going to respond to the Red Flags, click on our Red Flag Scale here, or on How Do You Respond here.

To check out's home page, click here.

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