By Jane Weaver Health editor
updated 1/25/2006 11:11:59 AM ET 2006-01-25T16:11:59

On Sunday, "Dateline NBC" reported on a yearlong investigation of sanitary and otherhealth-related conditions in the nation's supermarkets. The episode, Supermarket Sweep, provided further proof that we shouldn't assume our grocery stores are as clean as they should be.

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How can you protect yourself from dirty supermarkets? Food safety expert Jeffrey Nelken offers advice on keeping you and your family safe from food-borne illnesses while shopping and at home. Nelken, based in Woodland Hills, Calif., was featured in Sunday's "Dateline" and accompanied the show's producers on some of their shopping expeditions.

Q. We live with germs and most of the time we’re fine. How concerned should we be when we go into a supermarket?

A. There are two ways to answer your question: Am I high risk individual, am I HIV-positive, a person who’s pregnant, a person over the age of 65 or a diabetic? High risk people are 60 times more susceptible to food borne illnesses. High risk people need to be more aggressive when minimizing germs. They shouldn’t go around the supermarket picking up samples of strawberries or fruit sitting on the shelf that hasn’t been washed.

Q. What are we being exposed to from produce in grocery stores?

A. When we go through a supermarket, if you ever watched people, everyone likes to squeeze and touch the produce. It’s most likely had contact with twenty to thirty people’s hands. Statistically, half of all people don’t wash their hands when they leave the bathroom.

And keep in mind that produce has been pulled out of the ground and sitting in fertilizer. In fertilizer, there is manure.

You could be exposed to hepatitis A or salmonella. If you’re in the meat department, it could be E. Coli.

Then you have the produce person who has several knives and rarely washes those knives. They trim the produce to make sure the produce looks good to you. In the morning before the customers get there, they're removing brown spots, decayed edges or slime or mold on top. Then they take the knife and put it back in the holder.

Then this person may slice cantaloupes or watermelon without washing the knives. Now the bacteria has been passed on.

You want to make sure you wash melons before slicing them because most have been sitting on the ground. Whatever’s on the skin gets dragged through the melon. From a safety point of view, once cut, they should be maintained at 41 degrees or below. If you're seeing cut up watermelon or honeydew sitting on an unrefrigerated shelf, stay away from that.

Q. How do we know refrigerated areas in stores are 41 degrees?

A. In sections with prepackaged produce, look for a thermometer usually attached above. If you don’t see it, ask the produce person to show the thermometer. It should be reading 41 or below so bacteria won’t reproduce too quickly.

Q. How serious is the risk when we go into a supermarket? For most of us, we’ve probably not been made sick from these exposures.

A. You say that, but there are a lot of people who get 24-hour bugs they think are the flu. Many times people get sick, but it’s hard to finger the supermarket or the restaurant or your own behavior at home. We have three contributing factors and its hard to put the finger on any one unless you’ve been observing with a camera.

When you go shopping, it’s recommended that you pick out raw meats and things that need to be chilled towards the end. Whenever you buy something like chicken, make sure the package is tight and there’s no leakage. Make sure there’s no odor or no green color. Make sure to check the dates and that it’s a freshly made item.

Take a plastic bag on a roll that you tear off and put the package of chicken into a secondary bag. This way, in case of leaks, it won’t get on everything else in your basket. If you’re going to be picking up items that require refrigeration, keep a cooler in the car. You need to get home in 30 minutes, before damage starts taking place in the food. Nothing’s going to happen in 30 minutes, if the packaging is intact.

Q. What is the difference between the confusing “Sell by” and “Use by” dates?

A. They’re very close. Food manufacturers get consumers together and asked them to taste, let’s say, yogurt. They’ll ask people to taste the yogurt. At the point that it doesn’t taste fresh, that’s what they figure is the “Sell by” date. The "Sell by" and "Use by" dates are quality dates that are based on consumer research where you notice there is a difference in freshness.

The quality is there for 7-10 days from time of packaging, such as packaged dairy products. For meats, it’s usually about three days.

Quality is the food manufacturers' first concern because they don’t want you to change brands because it doesn’t taste fresh to you. This is how the whole strategy has developed. Quality loses out first and spoilage comes a lot later.

Q. Is there any standardization on this? Any type of government regulation on “Sell by” or “Use by?”

A. No.

Q. Do you think supermarkets are inspected often enough?

A. Considering that most supermarkets have a limited amount of inspections—two to three times a year—and they're open every day, it’s infinitesimal.

Consumers really need to rely on themselves. The first thing they need to do is, if they live in a community where inspection reports are available online, then look them up. They are especially concerned if you got sick from some food.

Go to your community health department, the environmental health services. Inspection reports should be posted. The public should have access to this information.

Q. What are the biggest mistakes consumers make in handling produce?

A. People think produce is clean automatically. There’s an assumption that produce has been washed by someone else before they bought it. You shouldn’t rely on any previous treatment. Even with the bags of mixed greens. Dole had an outbreak with salmonella and E. coli. If something says it’s pre-washed, you should still wash it. The water should be free flowing and going down the drain. Don’t make it like a bathtub. One of the biggest mistakes people make, they put the plug in the sink and fill it up like a bathtub to wash their lettuce. But if any leaf has some excrement on it, you now have a stew of excrement in the bath you’ve made for your lettuce.

Q. What else can we do at home to prevent foodborne illnesses?

A. Many people in their homes don’t have a thermometer to determine what the temperature is in the refrigerator. What does the dial say in your refrigerator? There’s no standard. One of the best kept secrets in America is the poorly-designed refrigerator.

Based on that, we should buy a $3 thermometer and hang it in the refrigerator. The temperature should be 41 degrees or below.

The other problem, the food products in the door of the refrigerator are three to five degrees warmer. But most people put things that are sensitive like milk or eggs or baby food on the door.

Figure that things in the refrigerator are good for three to four days for maximum freshness and quality. Then you start losing 25 percent every day after that. When in doubt, throw it out.

Q. What should we do in our kitchens on a regular basis?

A. Before you start food preparation, always wash hands and have your children wash their hands before start touching food. Next, keep all your medications and animal products out of the kitchen area when doing food preparation. It could fall into the food or contaminate the surface.

A lot of people have old wooden cutting boards. When we did bacterial checks on them, the counts are very high. Over 60 percent of wooden cutting boards had cracks in them. Once they have a crack, you can’t get in there to clean it.

If you’re going to do raw chicken and vegetables and salads, get three different boards so you keep them separate.

Q. What should you use to clean your kitchen?

A. Take a little soap and water and rinse it and spray with one ounce of bleach to a gallon of water and let it dry and it will kill everything. Put it in a spray bottle and it’s good for 24 hours. You should label the spray bottle so people know there’s bleach in it.

If there’s anything gooky on a can opener, sanitize it. Don’t use sponges, they’re very hard to sanitize. They can do more harm than good. Cloth towels or paper towel would be better.

Q. What are you supposed to wash your vegetables with? What about strawberries or grapes or lettuce?

A. First thing, spray the work area and have a strainer for lettuce. Tear off the core and spread out the leaves and have cold water rinsing through a strainer because you don’t want the produce making contact with the drain or the sink. The strainer should have little feet on it so it doesn’t touch the floor of the sink.

Cold water will knock off 98 percent of surface product. Two rinses is a good practice. Some people put vinegar in the second rinse so irritates bugs and knocks off bacteria as well. They use a quarter cup of white vinegar to a gallon of water.

In purchasing fruits like strawberries, be conscious of spiders or cobwebs. If you see something that looks like cotton on grapes, that sign tells you spiders have been running through them. Some studies about vegetables found that bruises are an entry for bacteria. If it's bruised or there's a tear in the skin, it becomes a riskier product.

When you pick out apples, if you see fuzz in the belly button or navel, that means it’s been stored too long.

Q. What is the proper way to defrost meats and seafood?

A. The number one thing you don’t do is leave it out at room temperature. That’s the worst thing you can do. The second worst thing is to run hot water over it. Put it on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator as it defrosts, so the blood doesn’t drip over anything else. Defrost it under 41 degrees in the refrigerator for a day or two. Method two is to put it under cold water for two hours. Make sure that the water is free flowing and going down the drain. Another means of defrosting, if you had frozen hamburger patty, put it on the grill and start cooking it. You have a variety of choices to defrost safely.

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