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How safe is your grocery store?

In an unprecedented report, NBC News ranks the top 10 grocery chains in the country in Dateline's 'Supermarket Sweep.'

Americans spend nearly half a trillion dollars a year in the supermarket. In fact, most of us make a trip to the grocery store twice a week. While we wouldn’t shop in a store we didn’t think was safe (and there are tens of thousands of stores across the country that handle food safely), if there is one thing we’ve learned in Dateline’s year-long “Supermarket Sweep,” it’s that you can’t assume your grocery is as clean as it should be.

"I think the industry is trying to make certain that they are as clean and as safe as they can possibly be," says Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco. "Everyone realizes that perfection is not possible—we’re all fallible."

Health inspectors showed us some photos of extreme examples  of some pretty disgusting and unhealthy conditions out there: a dead rat decaying next to a cooler in Chicago, even a cockroach in a store-baked cookie.

It’s tough to know how many people get sick from supermarket food— often it’s not very serious, perhaps a case of what seems like the flu. People often don’t report food poisoning and if they do, it can still be hard to trace its source.

But we do know food poisoning in general is a big problem in this country. The government’s Centers for Disease control estimates 5,000 people die and more than 70 million people get sick each year. 

So what can you do to lower your risk of getting sick? One way to do it is to research your supermarket’s safety record by checking the reports filed by health inspectors— but few people have  time to track down those reports. So Dateline has done some legwork for you. Using those reports, we decided to  rank the top 10 grocery chains in the country. We’re calling it the Dateline “Supermarkets Sweep.”

A hidden camera report
We took our hidden cameras to 18 stores across the country whose health inspection reports indicated they had a history of critical violations

According to the food safety expert we interviewed, Jeffrey Nelken, a critical violation  is usually defined as a “violation that could cause harm to a person.” Simply, something that could make you sick. Nelken advises supermarkets and teaches their employees how to handle food.He agreed to look at what we found.

In Texas, we found bags of dusty chips stored on the floor and a couple of dead flies drowned in a soup of spilled orange juice. In North Carolina, lots more grime: blood spilled in a meat tray, and an unidentifiable product under a shelf.

While muck like that is not always considered a critical violation in every jurisdiction, it is definitely troubling to Nelken.

Jeffrey Nelken, food safety expert: That just shows you that they aren’t doing any basic cleaning and there could be a lot of mold building up here and bacteria that you now bring with you into the home after you pick this stuff up.Lea Thompson, Dateline correspondent: And bug.sNelken: And bugs.

We did see lots of bugs— like a moth we caught in a store in Texas, or some fruit flies that came home with us on a piece of fruit in Florida.

Thompson:  Does that send up a red flag?Nelken: Absolutely. Flies for example may carry bacteria and roaches carry up to 25 to 30 different diseases.

At one store in New York, we saw signs of other uninvited guests— we saw mouse traps.

Nelken: If there are signs of pests in the facility, that would be a critical violation.

But it is not just filth and grime and pests inspectors worry about. Bacteria can grow just as easily in a refrigerated unit if it’s not kept at the right temperature.

Nelken:  The holding of food at 41 degrees or below prevents micro and bacterial growth from occurring.

But Dateline thermometers found food being kept either not cold enough or not hot enough at 4 out of the 18 stores we visited. Food like fresh fish on sale in Texas was at least five degrees too warm. We saw some fried chicken in Georgia was not being kept hot enough to keep bacteria from growing. It needed to be 30 degrees warmer.

It’s also a critical violation in some states to sell products past their “sell by” date. But we found plenty, like expired milk, days old, and deli meat weeks past the use by date. Most alarming, we also found a whole row of expired infant formula.

Another serious violation? The hot water in the bathrooms at one Georgia store turned off after a few seconds. The hottest we could get was just over 70 degrees. The federal food code  recommends employees to wash their hands in at least 110 degree water after going to the bathroom.

Nelken: Good example might be if you ever had cold water at home and you tried washing some pots with cold water. How did that work?Thompson: Not very well.Nelken: And that’s exactly what happens on the hands.

All in all, our shopping expedition uncovered what inspectors would call critical violations — problems that could make you sick —in 11 of the 18 stores we visited. And unlike inspectors, we didn’t even get a chance to go behind the scenes to see how food was being handled.

We knew the only way to really rank the cleanliness and safety of your favorite supermarket was to

Grocery store expert Jeff Nelken says we all can be a lot smarter about the way we shop for groceries...

But he says all supermarket employees have a responsibility to make sure the food they sell is clean and safe.

Jeffrey Nelken, food safety expert: This is part of your job description, keeping foods safe. Keeping hot food hot, keeping cold food cold, and keeping the place clean.  It’s a very simple direction.

So how are the supermarkets doing?

We hired a survey company to choose a random but statistically significant sample of 100 stores from each of the top 10 grocery chains: 1,000 stores in all, spanning 27 states.

We then collected and examined routine health inspection reports for each and every one of those stores in the year 2004 —the most recent year in which all inspections were available.  Then, we added up the number of critical violations health inspectors found.

We quickly discovered what a variety of inspection standards there are in this country. But every jurisdiction has the equivalent of a critical violation and if we weren’t sure what qualified, we called the local inspectors for help.

We also found some health departments inspect stores more often than others. So to be consistent and fair, we calculated how many critical violations each chain had on average for the year.

The list
From the supermarket chain that kept things cleanest, to the one with the poorest performance in our survey, here’s Dateline’s "Supermarkets Sweep." This is a list where nobody wants to be number one. (From the fewest violations to the most):

10) Food Lion. The grocery chain that did best in our survey? Food Lion. For every 10 inspections, it averaged 8 critical violations: that’s less than one violation per inspection.

9) Wal-Mart and Save-a-Lot. Not far behind we had two chains tied for ninth place?  Wal-Mart and Save-a-lot. Over 10 inspections both averaged 9 critical violations.

Save-a-Lot’s biggest problem, according to the inspection reports was selling food with expired labels or damaged packaging. While the chain did well in our survey, in one report from one Save-a-Lot in Eatonton, Georgia, a health inspector found 60 expired products for sale. Two months later, that number had doubled to 129.

As for the world’s largest retailer?  Wal-Mart’s biggest problem in its grocery sections seemed to be keeping food at the right temperature.  One of its stores had a real strange problem: birds, live ones. In Madison, Indiana, health inspectors told Wal-Mart it had to get rid of the birds flying around the store.

Dateline: What happens if they drop droppings on the food? Employee: Well about everything in here is prepackaged, you pretty well clean it up — the only problem is where the deli has fresh food, they just have to throw it out.

Dateline didn’t see any the day we were there but an employee assured us, 

Employee: There’s always some around somewhere.

7) Costco and Sam's Club. Tied for seventh place, Costco and Sam’s Club. Both averaged 12 critical violations — that means a little more than one violation for each inspection.

According to health reports, Sam’s Club didn’t provide adequate hand washing facilities for its employees. Some sinks were broken. Others had no soap.

As for Costco, one of its Brooklyn stores was cited in 2004 for a rodent problem. We visited the store three times in the past year and every time found mouse traps. But the most common violation, one out of every five found by health inspectors involved temperature. On 56 occasions,  in many different stores an inspector found food on sale that was stored in what’s known as the danger zone.

Nelken: The danger zone is the range of temperature from 41 to 135. And once you get in the middle of that, that’s where bacteria rages and reproduce.

5) Winn-Dixie. Next, as we go from fewest violations to the most, at number five is Winn-Dixie. For every 10 inspections, the chain had 14 critical violations and the stores received most of their citations for storing toxic chemicals such as cleaning supplies near food.

4) Kroger. With even more problems, at number four, Kroger— they an average 17 critical violations.

When Dateline paid the chain a visit in Sugarland, Texas we found a number of expired products: cheese and milk.  But the problem health inspectors noted most often at Kroger was one we couldn’t see. On 91 different occasions, inspectors cited Kroger stores for having improper food equipment, such as dirty meat slicers.

Nelken: Every time we slice the food we’re passing that bacteria on to that slice of cheese or meat.

The next three chains  had more problems than the rest of the pack in 2004. In fact, for every 10 inspections, each of them averaged more than 20 critical violations, that’s an average of more than two critical violations for each and every inspectors visit. 

3) Publix, on average, had 22 critical violations. Dateline visited two stores in Florida and found flies crawling over the fruits and vegetables. But according to inspectors, the most frequent problem for the chain was the way it stored toxic chemicals.

2) Albertsons. For every 10 inspections, 24 critical violations. And a lot were for improperly stored toxic chemicals.

1)  Safeway. Finally, in the spot no store wants to be number one in Dateline’s “Supermarket Sweep?” Safeway.

For every 10 inspections, Safeway stores received 25 critical violations— on average, two and a half critical violations for each inspection.

The biggest problem, according to inspectors? Temperature violations. For instance, “Dateline” recently found this Safeway in D.C. selling fried chicken that wasn’t hot enough to keep bacteria from growing.  And over two visits, “Dateline” also found dirty floors, broken packages of meat, and the store itself in a state of disrepair with wires hanging from the ceiling of the produce section.

We should mention that 25 percent of the stores in our survey had no critical violations at all in 2004.

Company responses
We asked every supermarket chain for a response to what we found. Jim Sinegal, the CEO of Costco, the store that came in at number seven, agreed to talk us on camera.

Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco: To the extent that we have those kind of violations? We’re disappointed. We’re disappointed in our managers and I put myself at the top of that list.

As to those rodent traps in that Brooklyn store?

Sinegal: There will be traps in there because we have to have traps. "We can’t talk 'em out," as one of our managers said. You have to go in and get them.

And the temperature problems?

Sinegal: We spend a lot of time on that and try to make sure that we’re correcting it. This is kinda of a wake up call for us and I think probably for everybody in our industry.

We did get from the other chains and no matter where they ranked in our survey they all emphasize  their  commitment to providing safe food to their customers. They also say if they find violations, they move to correct them as quickly as possible.

Krogers, which came in fourth in our survey and was cited for having dirty meat grinders, wrote that the chain has “Strict cleaning and sanitation policies for all food preparation equipment, including meat grinders.”

Publix, at number three, which had been cited for its storage of toxic chemicals, says it has strict standards to keep chemicals away from food and “any deviation from this practice would be against company policy.”

Albertsons, which came in second for overall problems said “even one critical health violation is too many.” It says it has “independent” audits of its stores and strict procedures and “any violation of company policy is unacceptable.”

Safeway, which averaged the most violations in our survey,  noted that the reports we analyzed were from 2004 and since then Safeway has “continued to enhance and re-energize store adherence to our food safety and sanitation standards.”

Lea Thompson, Dateline correspondent: What should consumers do if they see what appears to be a serious problem in a grocery store?Nelken: I think they should report it immediately to the manager of that particular store. Lacking any response from that manager, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to call the health department. I think it's the customers responsibility to vote with their feet. If they don’t like what they see, they should walk out.

Correction: In our story, we showed a health inspection report from a store in Eatonton, Georgia that had problems with expired labels. Save-A-Lot pointed out that the Georgia store -- Save-a-lot with a slightly different spelling -- is not affiliated with the national chain. Removing the store from the survey does not affect the rankings.