You go there every week to buy nourishing food for your family, so it may be a shock to learn that there are dangers lurking in your grocery store – and we're not talking about Double Stuf Oreos.
We're talking about the fruits and veggies, the meats, and those handy-in-a-hurry prepared meals, all of which can harbor dangerous bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. Last year, 76 million Americans got sick from contaminated food. Over 300,000 ended up in the hospital; 5 million didn't make it out.
Experts say food contamination, and the practices that lead to it – storing and packaging food improperly, failing health inspections – are on the rise. Here are the danger zones to watch out for and easy-to-follow tips for keeping you and your family safe.
The Meat Section
Dirty little secret: Gone is the time when you bought your meat from a butcher who specialized in all things carnivorous and knew how to safely handle meat. Nowadays, more and more supermarkets act like small meat processing plants without the licensing, training and oversight required of actual meat packing vendors. They may not ensure that meat and chicken is tightly sealed, isolated from cross contamination and stored at the right temperature, leaving them open to bacterial growth. Beyond that, stores are allowed to pump carbon monoxide into meat packaging, which though not harmful, gives the meat a fresh appearance no matter how long it's been sitting on the shelf.
Quick fix: Eat meat within 2-3 days of getting it home or freeze it right away. Know the difference between the sell-by and the use-by dates. Use-by dates are federally mandated, but sell-by dates are arbitrarily set by the store and are not a good indicator of how fresh food is.
The Deli Counter
Dirty little secret: You may not want to hear this, but those handy prepared foods – rotisserie chickens, pasta salads, fruit salads – are often made from foods that have expired and should be eaten immediately or thrown away. In addition, they are prepared the same way a restaurant would, but without the oversight, training and licensing of a restaurant. The last part of the recipe for contamination is temperature. Because cooked food is a playground for bacteria, it is vital that these items be kept at 135 degrees, but that temperature can dry food out, so stores sometimes keep cases cooler, inviting bacteria to grow and multiply.
Quick fix: Give your deli counter the once over. Ask how the food is stored and look for the thermometer in the display case. Cold food should be stored at 41 degrees or less and hot food above 135. Finally, ask when the food was prepared. If the answer is longer than 4 hours ago, keep on walking.
The Produce Section
Dirty little secret: When you grab an apple for lunch, your hands may be the 20th pair to touch it. That's right, veggies and fruits are picked, sorted, thrown on a truck, taken off a truck, sorted again, boxed and unboxed all before they reach the display case where they're fondled by other customers before they meet you. Experts say, all in all, 20 people will touch a tomato before you slice it up for your salad. And that's in addition to all the animal waste that can mingle with produce on the long journey from farm to table.
Quick fix: Carefully wash all fruits and vegetables before eating, even if you don't plan on eating the skin. When you peel or cut vegetables and fruits, the bacteria from the exterior can travel inside. Keep any prepped veggies, such as sliced tomatoes, at 41 degrees or cooler until you eat or cook them.
Bone Up on Your Own Food-Safety Practices
Be meat smart. Buy chicken, fish and poultry at the end of your shopping trip so that they stay cold longer. Make sure all meats are packaged tightly (double bagging is a good idea), so no juices (and the bacteria they contain) can leak out onto other foods.
Bin there, what's that? It's sad but true, many people skip the tongs and use their bare hands to get that bagel from the bread bin, introducing their own bacteria and viruses. But that's not all they leave behind. Among the most commonly found items at the bottom of open bins? False fingernails. Which should be argument enough for you to skip any open containers and opt for packaged items.
Reuse, recycle, and rewash! Reusable bags are great for the environment, but can be bad for food safety. Wash them every 10 uses – using an acidic cleaner such as vinegar or running them through the washing machine – to remove any dangerous bacteria from your previous shopping trips.