Safer Shopping at the Supermarket 8/12
(This article is adapted from ShopSmart magazine.)
Did you know that the way you handle foods while you’re shopping in the supermarket can expose you to serious foodborne illnesses? But some basic food handling techniques can help protect you, starting right at your local store.
Here are seven important safety steps to get you started, along with important safety tips for every aisle of the grocery store.
1. Prep before you shop
Next time you head to the store, throw a cooler with ice packs into your car. Then if you have a bunch of errands to run or it’s hot outside, you will be able to keep perishable foods from warming up in your car. If you forget a cooler, ask the butcher or fishmonger for some ice in a plastic bag. Also, put sanitizing wipes that contain alcohol in your purse.
2. Clean your cart handles
As you enter the store, wipe the handles with your wipes. Germs might be lurking there. The wipes will help you prevent transferring those bugs from your hands to the food you’re buying, which is especially important when it comes to the produce you’ll be eating raw. Also, wiping your hands on the way out can help you banish germs you’ve picked up while shopping.
3. Shop in the middle of the store first
This is generally where you’ll find drinks and packaged goods, which can sit in your cart for a while. When selecting canned foods and storage containers, inspect cans for damage. Bulges, leaks, and rust can put you at risk of botulism, a potentially fatal illness. If possible, try to cut back on canned food.
The chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is used in most can liners. Some studies have linked it to reproductive abnormalities and a higher risk of breast and prostate cancers, diabetes, and heart disease. Consumer Reports tests of canned foods, including soups, juice, tuna, and green beans, found that almost all of our samples contain some BPA. So buy fresh foods whenever you can.
Avoid problem plastics. When buying food-storage containers, look for recycling codes. Don’t buy those marked with No. 7 and the letters “PC,” or unmarked hard, see-through plastic ones, which could potentially be made with BPA. Also, avoid plastic bottles and vinyl-lined lunch boxes made with PVC, which might leach other hazardous chemicals when they touch food. Those might be marked a No. 3. Deli cling wraps often fall into this category, so rewrap deli foods when you get them home.
4. Shop later for foods that need to be kept cold
Foods that need to be kept cold are often in the side aisles-- meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, bakery goods, deli meats and prepared foods and salads. Go there later, after you’ve done the middle aisles.
When it comes to deli meats and salads, always buy freshly made foods. Ask whether the macaroni salad or other things you buy were made that day. If a clerk says yes, but you see bits of crust around the edges, take a pass. Everything behind the counter should be refrigerated or on ice. Check for the latest “use-by” date possible on containers of pre-made foods in chilled cases, and make sure they feel cold.
Check out food-handling habits of the staff. A clean floor and staffers wiping down slicing machines between orders doesn’t guarantee your safety, but it can’t hurt. Staffers should also be wearing gloves when handling food.
Consider heating up cold cuts. Listeria, a bacteria that can cause stillbirths or birth defects, is most often found in ready-to-eat processed foods such as deli meats and hot dogs, as well as unpasteurized cheese. According to experts, Listeria is hard to eradicate from an area, including deli slicing machines, plastic containers, and counters. So people at high risk for food poisoning, and especially pregnant women, should heat deli meat until it’s steaming hot and stay away from unpasteurized cheese.
Keep bakery goods chilled along with other perishables. Make sure that bakery foods with dairy products such as cheesecake, cheese Danish pastries, and some pies stay cold until you can get them home and put them in the fridge. Peek in the package to make sure you can’t see any mold forming.
5. Raw meat and poultry: handle with caution
Double-bag all raw meat and poultry because it might be contaminated. Consumer Reports tests of fresh, whole broiler chickens found that two-thirds contained bacteria that cause the most foodborne illnesses. Many stores have plastic bags near the meat cases; if yours doesn’t, you can grab some from the produce aisle, cover your hand with it inside out, and then pull the bag over the package.
Wash your hands if they come into contact with even the packaging around a meat or poultry item. Wash up or use an alcohol wipe to prevent spreading bugs to other foods.
Separate meat and poultry from other items in your cart to avoid cross-contamination. Give cleaning supplies their own area, in case they spring a leak. Make sure items you’ve kept apart in your shopping cart, are bagged separately at the checkout counter, too.
6. Fresh produce, no cuts or bruises
Don’t buy it if it’s moldy or bruised. Soft spots can be signs of contamination. For example, if a tomato has cuts or bruises and salmonella was on the outside, it can migrate inside the fruit, where it can survive even if the tomato is washed thoroughly.
Buy local when possible. That’s no guarantee of safety, but if produce is shipped over a long distance, there’s more time for a bacterium such as salmonella to grow. Find a local farmer’s market at apps.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets, www.localharvest.org, or www.eatwellguide.org.
Check "use by" dates on bagged greens and other prepackaged produce. In tests, Consumer Reports found higher levels of some bacteria in pre-washed packages of salad that were one to five days earlier than their "use-by" date. Packages that were six to eight days earlier than their "use-by" dates were cleaner.
Avoid pesticide residues by choosing certain organic produce. Some fruits and vegetables carry relatively high levels of pesticide residue even after washing. Consider buying organic when it comes to apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends several steps to minimize your risks:
• Cut away damaged or bruised areas before preparation.7. Pick up frozen foods last, keep them together
• Rinse all produce thoroughly under running water just before use.
• Dry produce with a clean cloth or paper towel, which may also reduce bacteria.
• Raw sprouts require further precautions because washing them first will not remove bacteria. The FDA recommends that you cook sprouts thoroughly before use. Children and the elderly should avoid eating them.
Always choose hard, cold packages, If not maintained properly, supermarket freezers could contain foods that have been partially thawed and might even be warm to the touch. Warmed-up containers can lead to an increased risk of food poisoning from growing microorganisms. So lean in to the freezer case. Select frozen foods from the back of the case; those items usually remain the coldest and most frozen.
Look for telltale drips. They’re one sign that the food inside has thawed or melted, which could make them more vulnerable to bacteria growth. So if, say, an ice-cream container or yogurt has a stream down the side, put it back and find one that doesn’t.
Video: Preventing Food Poisoning.
Safer eats: How to avoid foodborne illness. 7/12