Information about the best ways to ensure you source safe food abounds today, but have you given much thought to the potential dangers of the grocery store? While most of us know it’s vital to avoid GMO ingredients and pesticides on our produce; it’s easy to discount the effect of the store itself on the overall food safety.
Unfortunately, recent research reveals that shopping at the supermarket might not be as safe as you think it is. Torn packaging, germy produce, and plastic-coated receipts can all pose health hazards you never thought to consider.
The good news is most health risks in every grocery store are easy to avoid if you know what to look for. By being aware of where the most prominent problems lie and what it takes to alleviate them, you can ensure that after each grocery store visit you bring your family nothing more than the healthy food you meant to.
As a preface, the purpose of this article isn’t to make you paranoid. Bacteria is everywhere, and most is harmless, even helpful. However, being aware of the most significant health risks in the grocery store will help you make positive changes that improve safety for everyone.
18 Ways Grocery Stores Can Be Risky
Anywhere that hundreds of humans regularly intermingle at once is bound to be germy, and the grocery store is no exception. Studies reveal that grocery stores are a haven for dangerous bacteria, especially fecal bacteria like E. coli.
What foods and processes are putting you at the most risk? The following list will show you what to avoid.
1. Contaminated Deli Slicers
Store cut deli meat might look fresh, but research from the CDC reveals that those slicers often aren’t cleaned as much as they should be. According to their report, about half of sampled retail delis didn’t wash their slicers as frequently as the Food and Drug Administration recommended. This leads to potential contamination from germs like listeria monocytogenes, which is responsible for one in three food poisoning deaths each year.
To prevent these problems, the CDC recommends that deli workers receive better training for maintaining slicer cleanliness and thoroughly sanitize their equipment every 4 hours. In the meantime, take precautions with your deli meat by asking for information about sanitation practices from the slicers before you buy.
2. Coli- Tainted Shopping Carts
Dozens of hands push shopping carts around the grocery store each week, so it’s hardly surprising that most are coated in germs. However, you might be surprised just how dangerous this bacteria can be. A 2012 study found that two-thirds of tested shopping carts showed traces of fecal bacteria like E. coli, often from torn meat packages, contaminated produce, and even leaking diapers. In some instances, grocery store carts contained over 8,000 bacteria colonies per square inch, compared to just 30 per square inch on toilet handles.
Keep yourself safe by carefully washing your hands before coming into contact with a shopping cart and preventing your produce from touching the cart itself. Also, be extra cautious before using grocery carts that are parked outside, as they can be coated in bird droppings.
3. Grungy Fridge Doors
We all like opening the doors in the freezer department to look inside, and their bacteria levels are proof of the practice. Research shows that grocery store fridge doors contain 1,200 times more bacteria than the surface of your cell phone, or approximately 33,000 colonies per square inch. Worst of all, much of this bacteria are gram-positive cocci, a germ that can increase your risk of developing strep throat, staph infections, blood poisoning, and pneumonia.
4. Unhygienic Employee Practices
Poor personal hygiene practices by grocery store workers is a common cause of bacterial contamination in grocery stores. Failing to wash hands adequately, wear gloves or hairnets, and coming into work while ill are all practices that put food at risk for unsuspecting customers.
5. Undetected Food Fraud
A horse meat scandal almost broke the internet a few years back, putting fear into the hearts of shoppers everywhere that their hamburger meat isn’t the beef they think it is. Food fraud still happens today, though the overall risk is low. The commercial food chain is long and confusing, and a shortage of health inspectors means infractions can slip through the cracks, potentially putting your health at risk if you eat something different than what you think it is.
6. Free-Range Rodents In Warehouses
Most grocery store goods spend the beginning of their life in warehouses that aren’t as well monitored as the store aisles. Tiny cracks can let mice in, and it’s not uncommon for a rodent infestation to get out of hand, potentially coating containers in urine, droppings, and occasionally even corpses. Besides being unsanitary, rodents can also spread parasites or transmit diseases like Lyme disease and salmonella to warehouse workers and the people who buy contaminated products.
Pop cans, beer bottles, and other drinks are at a high risk of contamination, so take time to carefully wash containers you buy before drinking from them.
7. Broken Eggs
Considering how far most eggs travel to get to the store, it’s a wonder any survive the trip to your home fridge. Cracked eggs are cause for concern because they provide an access point for germs to tunnel past the lysozyme, a protective protein in egg whites. If these bacteria reach the yolk, they spoil the egg and develop a rotten smell. Keep yourself safe by checking each egg carton for evidence of cracks before you buy them. Alternatively start keeping your own chickens in your backyard for the freshest eggs possible.
8. Dirty Reusable Bags
Your stash of reusable bags might keep the planet’s plastic levels down, but without proper care, they might be posing a risk to your health. Spilled packages or contaminated produce can lead to potentially dangerous germs like salmonella and E. coli that can make you sick. If your bags regularly get warm and wet, they might be a breeding ground for unwanted bacteria.
The good news? Keeping your bags safe is simple. Wash them regularly in your washing machine, and store them in a cool, dry place between uses- not your car trunk.
9. Smudgy Credit Card Pads
What’s one part of the grocery store almost everyone is guaranteed to touch? The credit card pad. When you settle your bill, you’re putting your fingers in contact with everyone else’s flu germs, potentially putting yourself at risk of illness. Thankfully, washing your hands immediately after will dramatically reduce your risk of contracting anything.
10. Spoiled Food Samples
While the risk is low that grocery store food samples will get you sick, it isn’t unheard of. In 2010, the CDC reported on an outbreak of E.coli bacteria that were linked to cheese samples from Costco. Over 30 people got sick before the cheese was recalled, so it might pay to take precautions around in-store samples.
11. Tainted Produce Misters
Supermarkets keep their veggies looking fresh with regular misters, but this re-crisping strategy occasionally comes at the cost of consumer health. Misting machines use reservoir tanks that that can potentially breed bacteria that leads to pneumonia. While the spray isn’t a risk unless you inhale the droplets, some shoppers might find it a little too close for comfort during their shopping trip.
12. Cleaning Product Aisle
The synthetic chemical compounds in many conventional cleaning products make it easy for them to trigger allergies and general irritation- even when they’re still in their packages. Some people are so sensitive that they can experience a full-blown asthma attack in the cleaning aisle, while others will suffer general irritation. Regardless, the risks involved with walking around these products should make it clear you want them far away from your home.
13. Too Little Refrigeration
It takes shockingly little time for food to spoil when it isn’t properly refrigerated, meaning that your health is at risk when grocery stores fail to meet these standards. Bacteria can proliferate on foods kept between 40°F and 140°F, meaning that heating and refrigeration is essentially for staving it off. Lower the risk of spoiling your groceries by buying your cold foods last so that they don’t spend time warming up while you continue shopping. A safer idea? Shop with a portable cool pack so that you keep all your food at the right temperature until it makes it home.
14. Sticky Packaging
Meat packages get torn more than most of us are comfortable with, and the resulting air exposure provides breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria. It’s best to carefully inspect every package for leaks or tears, and avoid anything that feels sticky, as it might be tainted from another spilled container.
Leaky packages can contaminate other foods in your cart as well, so take care to separate out your meat and produce so that they don’t cross contaminate.
15. Germy Checkout Belts
We rarely think twice about putting produce directly on the checkout belt, but everything from raw chicken to day-old sushi has traveled across the same space, potentially contaminating your purchase. Keep things clean by avoiding setting any produce directly on the belt, and wash it thoroughly before you eat it.
16. Standing Water Risks
All forms of standing water can spell bad news for your groceries, even when ice or heat is involved. Airborne bacteria can contaminate the water, and there’s often little way to know how long the water has been sitting out. Food in filtered water (like in a lobster tank) is likely okay, but avoid all foods sitting in water for an indeterminate amount of time.
17. Germy Produce Displays
How do you decide what produce is best to buy? If you’re anything like most of us, you probably touch and squeeze a good variety before making your selection. Unfortunately, all those hands on your future fruit purchase can spread the flu virus or other dangerous pathogens into your pantry. Try to limit the risk by touching only what you commit to buying, and carefully wash your produce before consuming it.
18. BPA-Laced Receipts
The health risks of your shopping receipt should be low on your list of concerns, but it still deserves a mention. The plastic component in most receipts is Bisphenol A (BPA), a compound made with synthetic estrogen that has been linked to a host of health problems like asthma, cancer, and cardiovascular damage. According to the Environmental Working Group, about two-fifths of store receipts contain BPA today. Refusing your receipt is one option, but you can also lower your risk by washing your hands after handling them and avoiding alcohol-based hand sanitizers, as they increase your chances of absorbing the compounds into your skin.
Practice Common Sense For Better Health At The Grocery Store
Long supply chains, dozens of workers, and hundreds of shoppers traveling through them each day means that the standard grocery store is a germy place to be. Accepting your food without question could put your health at risk, but practicing some common sense will go a long ways towards staying healthy. Carefully inspect all packages before putting them in your cart, avoid touching your face after coming into contact with germy spaces, and thoroughly wash your hands and produce once you leave the store.
By following these measures, you’ll significantly reduce your risk of picking up unsafe bacteria on your next shopping trip.