How to Avoid Contaminated Food at the Supermarket

These savvy shopping tips will help you avoid illness linked to contaminated foods at your local supermarket.



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One in four Americans comes down with some kind of illness linked to contaminated food each year. Make sure you're not one of them with these savvy shopping tips on how to buy the freshest groceries and store them quickly:

Do a quick once-over
Your supermarket should be clean, and there shouldnt be any torn or broken packages or loads of perishables in the aisles waiting to be put away. If youre concerned about cleanliness, ask the store manager to show you grocery-inspection results. Most supermarkets are inspected two to three times a year by county health departments, although inspection standards may vary state by state.

Shop in order
Start with nonperishables, then pick up produce, dairy, frozen foods, meat and poultry, and prepared foods. The goal is to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible, so foods dont have time to thaw or get too warm. Leave a space in the cart for meat and poultry, so it wont be on top of other foods—and keep children away from packages of chicken, meat, seafood, and other raw or unwashed foods.

Check labels
Look for “Sell-by” and “Use by” dates. Past-prime products do make it onto shelves, so be aware; sometimes fresher stuff is in the back. If the date looms, make sure to use the product quickly or freeze it. On bagged salad, its believed that E. coli can grow more rapidly in greens that are old and decomposing, so checking the dates is imperative.

No bruising allowed
Skip produce that has punctured or bruised skin, or torn or partially thawed frozen-food packages; theyre an invitation for bacteria.

Beware the bag
Convenience is great. But, to date, the overwhelming majority of foodborne illnesses from leafy greens have been from packaged products, says Rebecca Spector, West Coast director of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety. “Perhaps its because the products go through more processing steps—including using machinery and people to cut, wash, and bag the produce—thus opening more risks of contamination,” she says. Buy produce in its unprocessed form, wash and dry thoroughly, and use within a few days.

Temperature matters
Produce should be displayed in open cases that are periodically misted. Milk and meat should be kept below 40 degrees F, and preferably at 35 degrees. Be aware that items crowded or stacked too high in a dairy case may not be as cold as they should
be for maximum freshness. Go for the product in the back.
Last Updated: May 19, 2009

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