Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Germs in the Grocery Store

Kellene Bishop (Preparedness Pro) recently posted an article about a movie theater where good food-handling practices are actively discouraged. Eww. Just…eww.

I don’t go to movie theaters very often, mostly because they’re expensive places for family outings. However, her article made me think about grocery shopping because most grocery stores are disgusting places to visit – even the ones that appear to be very clean.

I used to work in a grocery store. I’ve also been dragged along for Mom’s weekly grocery shopping since I came out of her womb. Well...technically, I accompanied her before I was born, but whatever. There’s also Kid Sis, who works in retail as a cashier. She’s been on the job for nearly a year, and has seen many things that I, too, see.

This all relates to survival because the swine flu and other contagious illnesses are real threats. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to avoid even non-life-threatening sicknesses because I can’t afford to take time off from school or work.

So, let’s take a walk through the store and see what’s going on, shall we?

You park your car in the lot and then grab a cart from either the outdoor corral or the indoor area. Where I worked, and where Kid Sis works, there are no sanitizing wipes or Germ-X/Purell at the front of the stores. None of the grocery stores in our area offer either of these things, actually.

One interesting fact, though, is that some stores in other parts of the country use misting systems that cover the whole cart with food-grade sanitizer. Pretty neat, huh?

What kinds of germs might you find on a shopping cart? According to Dr. Chuck Gerba, a germ specialist, samples that “The Today Show” took from carts located all over the United States often (more often than not, that is) included such lovely things as fecal matter and E. coli.

Now you take your dirty shopping cart through the store, loading it down with everything from canned peas to pretzels. You pick up a package of tea bags, which seem to be as clean as can be. However, you don’t know if they’ve been handled in the last few minutes. For all you know, someone with a contagious illness coughed into his hands, picked up the box, then changed his mind. He then put down the box, leaving his germs behind for you to pick up. (Oh, and women can also spread germs. I meant nothing sexist by the male pronouns.)

After you put your infected tea bags in your cart, your nose starts to itch. Or your cell phone rings. Maybe you have to touch your kid’s shoulder to signal him to get out of the way because a stocker is coming up behind him with a huge pallet of merchandise. Regardless, you’re probably spreading the germs that you picked up from the tea bags.

Your shopping trip continues. Along the way, you touch all sorts of surfaces that an untold number of people have recently handled: the shelves; the coffee-bean scoop; the produce-bag dispenser. Where I worked, and where Kid Sis works, none of these surfaces are routinely cleaned, much less disinfected.

Now let’s talk about the cashier. We’ll use the feminine pronoun because most of the cashiers I know are women. She’s touching your food, the conveyor belt, the cash register, and everything else within reaching distance. The sacker (or bagger, or carryout clerk, or whatever) is also touching all sorts of surfaces, and most of them are not disinfected or even regularly cleaned.

Even when a store’s manager or owner is very conscientious of food-handling practices and other safety measures, there isn’t enough manpower or time in the workday to routinely disinfect all the common surfaces. You might, occasionally, find a store that’s truly clean – one where common surfaces are actually disinfected – but that’s the exception, at least where I live. I don’t know of any store around here with that kind of practice in place, actually.

You might keep in mind that some grocery-store managers are better about sick days than others. Kid Sis developed a sore throat and a mild fever in the middle of one of her shifts last week. She came home before her shift ended…but she had to take one point for it. If she racks up three points within X months (six, I think), she’s out of a job – no questions asked.

Her store’s employees collect one point for everything from showing up late to leaving in the middle of a shift to insubordination. To management, leaving in the middle of a shift because you’re sick is exactly the same thing as snapping at your immediate supervisor. I think that this is stupid, but nobody asked for my opinion.

This is why some of Kid Sis’s coworkers, especially those with families to support, keep their mouths shut and continue working even when they’re sick. Their families are, understandably, more important than a stranger’s health and well being.

As I’ve already stated, there are some exceptions to the “grocery stores are cesspits” idea. I’m not trying to say that no grocery-store owner or manager in the entire country has found a way to make the places a bit cleaner, because that’s not true. However, I know for a fact that all of the few grocery stores in my area are cesspits, and that it’s up to me to take care of business. Keep the hand sanitizer and wipes at the ready, folks, and don’t forget to clean your food and other purchases.


  1. Oy vey. Grocery stores are teeming over with germs, once you think about it. I encourage people to use the sani wipes to disinfect the cart, but you bring up good points: who knows who touched these items before? The cashier touches everything handled by everyone else! Thanks also for linking back to the movie theater article. If we all become a little more aware, we can be more vigilant about our health.

  2. Have you seen the new produce bags that are in a box and dispence like facial tissue? Tug N Tote

  3. Anonymous: never even heard of produce bags in that kind of dispenser, but I like the idea. Here, we still have produce bags on big rolls. Blech.

    And Prep. Pro, you're welcome on the linkback - liked your article and it made me think about this subject.


“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
-George OrwellAnimal Farm