Supermarket smarts

It’s not just what you buy but how you buy it. Here are important safety tips for every aisle of the grocery store.

ShopSmart: May 2010

Before we get to our food-specific shopping tips, here’s a four-step safety game plan to get you started:

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.

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. 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. Then you can hit the produce and bulk-food aisles.

4. Save stuff that needs to be kept cold—meat, fish, eggs, milk, and deli meats—for the end.

Pick up frozen foods last and keep them together. Also, separate meat, poultry, and 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 are bagged separately, too.

Canned foods & storage containers

Inspect cans for damage

Bulges, leaks, and rust can put you at risk of botulism, a potentially fatal illness.

Cut back on canned food

The chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is used in some hard, clear plastic bottles and most can liners. Some studies have linked it to reproductive abnormalities and a higher risk of breast and prostate cancers, diabetes, and heart disease. Our 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. Avoid those marked with No. 7 and the letters “PC,” and 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.

Aisle-by-aisle

Here are important safety tips for every aisle of the grocery store.

Frozen foods

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 micro-organisms.

Lean in

Select frozen foods from the back of the freezer 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.

Bakery goods

Keep them chilled

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

Look inside to make sure you can’t see any mold forming.

Fruits & veggies

Don’t buy it if it’s moldy or bruised

Soft spots are contamination petri dishes, says sarah Klein, an attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy group. 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 a recent test, we found higher levels of some bacteria in prewashed packages of salad that were one to five days from their use-by date. Packages that were six to eight days from their use-by dates were cleaner.

Consider certain organics

Some produce carries 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.

Deli meats & salads

Buy freshly made prepared 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 premade foods in chilled cases, and make sure they feel cold.

Check out food-handling habits

A clean floor and staffers wiping down slicers between orders doesn’t guarantee your safety, but it can’t hurt. Staffers should also be wearing gloves when handling food.

Avoid nitrites when possible

Those chemicals help preserve meat, but they can be converted into carcinogens by the stomach. And some studies have linked the high intake of nitrites to an increased risk of stomach and pancreatic cancer. Any increased risk from cold cuts is probably small, and eating plenty of green veggies and fruits with vitamin C appears to erase any added cancer risk. But if you’re still concerned, ask the deli clerk for cold cuts and other meats that are nitrite-free.

Consider heating up cold cuts

Listeria, a hardy 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. “Listeria is hard to eradicate from an area, including deli slicers, plastic containers, and the counter itself,” Klein says. “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.”

Raw meat & poultry

Double-bag it

Treat all meat and poultry as if it’s contaminated— because it might be. Our test of fresh, whole broiler chickens found that two-thirds contained bacteria that cause the most food-borne illnesses. “Although this is a little gross, you should pick them up like you would dog poop,” Klein says. “Put your hand in a plastic bag, then fold it back over the food container without touching it.” Many stores have plastic bags near the meat cases; if yours doesn’t, you can grab some from the produce aisle.

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.

Get meat ground fresh

Cuts of meat come from just one animal, so they might be less contaminated.

Don’t pick a pretenderized cut

Many cuts are now put through a machine that tenderizes it by piercing it with tiny needles. But that might also spread contamination that was limited to the outside of the meat into the center. You can’t always tell by looking whether meat has been tenderized, so ask.

Pick cold, dry packages

Reach deep into the bottom of the cold case.

Check the date

Choose the package with the latest date. You should buy meat and fish before the sell-by date and generally either use it within a day or so or freeze it.

Look for the “safe food handling” label

It doesn’t guarantee that the item is bacteria-free, but it will include handling and cooking tips.

Don’t judge meat by its color

Carbon monoxide is sometimes used in packaging to keep meat looking red and fresh, even when it’s not. So check dates! Look for the latest date, and use the meat within a day or so or freeze it.

Consider organics

You might be able to cut your odds of exposure to the agent believed to cause mad cow disease and minimize other toxins used in nonorganic feed. You also avoid antibiotics.

Sniff it for freshness

If meat doesn’t smell fresh, don’t buy it! But be aware that even if it smells OK, it could still be loaded with bacteria.

Dairy products

Buy everything pasteurized

“Many producers of raw milk are very careful how they produce it, but it’s a risky product that can easily be contaminated with campylobacter, salmonella, or E. coli,” Klein says. She also suggests that you consider liquid pasteurized eggs if you’ll be eating them raw (as in homemade cookie dough). But you might not want to opt for ultrapasteurized milk. Some groups have raised concerns about it. Says Patty Lovera, deputy director of the nonprofit group Food and Water Watch, “It’s heated at a higher temperature to give it a longer shelf life so it can be shipped further, but we don’t yet know what that does to the milk.”

Pick milk with “rBGH free” or “no artificial growth hormones” on the label

Injecting cows with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) increases milk output but also increases lameness and udder infections; whether it is harmful to humans has not been definitively determined. But an internal government report in Canada noted that there have been no long-term studies on whether it causes sterility, birth defects, or cancer in humans, and Canada did not approve it. Other studies linked a hormone that is increased in milk from rBGH-treated cows to an increased incidence of prostate and breast cancer.

Check the “sell by” date

Select the latest dates, and choose items from the back of the case.

Choose cold egg cartons

Make sure the eggs are clean, unbroken, and not stuck to the bottom of the carton. Look for the latest sell-by dates.

Look for dry dairy cartons

Milk on the outside can be bacterial breeding grounds.

Drinks

Buy pasteurized juices

Pasteurized means that it’s heated to kill pathogens. Fresh-squeezed juice and some ciders aren’t pasteurized, so they’re riskier, especially for young kids, seniors, pregnant women, and anyone with a compromised immune system.

Consider alternatives to canned juices and liquid baby formula

BPA is in the linings of some cans.

Fish & shellfish

Cut back on fish high in mercury

This includes king mackerel, shark, swordfish, and tilefish. also avoid tuna (canned and fresh) if you’re pregnant.

Handle seafood packages like meat

Use bags to cover it, and clean up if you touch any packaging or juices.

Make sure it’s fresh

The flesh should be shiny and firm and not separating from the bone.

Ask whether you can have a sniff

It shouldn’t smell overly fishy. When certain fish begin to decay, Klein says, “you can end up with a toxin called scombrotoxin, which cannot be eliminated, even by cooking.”

Get it chilled

Seafood displayed in a case should be on ice but free of ice crystals, which indicate the seafood has previously thawed.

Keep prepared items separate

Buy cooked seafood such as shrimp, crab, or smoked fish only if it is separated from raw fish to prevent cross-contamination.

Buy wild salmon when possible

Some tests suggest that farmraised salmon might contain high levels of PCBs, a possible carcinogen.

Avoid shellfish, especially oysters, from warm waters such as the Gulf of Mexico

It runs the risk of containing Vibrio bacteria. “Vibrio affects fewer people than many contaminants, but it kills half of the people that do get sick,” Klein says. Look for processed seafood, which has been steam-heated.

Bulk foods

Look for clean bins

Skip bins with lots of dust or crumbs at the bottom, which indicates that they are not emptied or cleaned out often. Also try to stick with bins that are high enough to be out of reach of curious (and perhaps less-than-clean) toddlers—bacteria can spread from hand to scoop.

Skip the scoops

Try to buy bulk foods from stores that have gravity-fed bins (the kind of container that releases the contents only when you pull a lever). People can’t stick their hands in the food, and they’re forced to take the older stuff first. (But still make sure the bin looks clean!)

The 8 dos & don’ts of putting away groceries

1. Don't take your time!

Put perishables in the fridge or freezer as soon as you get home. They can start to spoil in as little as one hour.

2. Do put things in the right place.

Milk should go in the back, where it's coldest. Keep old containers no more than a week after the sell-by date. Keep eggs in their carton in the back of the fridge, too, not in the door. They last three to five weeks. Securely wrap and place raw fish, meat, and poultry on plates on lower shelves in the back, where it's coldest and they're not going to drip on and contaminate other foods. If you're not using them right away, freeze them. Seafood, meat, and poultry should be kept no longer than a couple of days in the fridge. Open deli meats last three to five days in the fridge.

3. Do check your fridge temp.

Your fridge and freezer should be 37° to 38° F and 0° F, respectively.

4. Don't overstuff.

Allowing room for air to circulate in your fridge and freezer ensures that things stay cold enough. Also, don't stack meats on top of each other in the freezer.

5. Do pack it up.

Moisture- and vapor-proof materials such as airtight containers are best at keeping food such as cold cuts, cheese, and fresh berries from spoiling quickly.

6. Do put nuts in the freezer.

The oils in them can turn rancid in as little as a month. So if you don't plan to use them right away, freeze them.

7. Don't put food away in a dirty fridge or cupboards.

Periodically scrub your fridge and cupboards to remove spills and residue that might attract bugs. Use a permanent marker to date any new items you store that don't have a "use by" date, such as bulk foods. And while you're in there, get rid of any expired foods.

8. Do use the "first in, first out" rule.

Store new items in your pantry in the back. Use the oldest unexpired products in the front first.

This article appeared in Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine.


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