The average American goes to the supermarket twice a week and is exposed to bacteria from a variety of sources — from the grocery cart handle to the melons in the produce aisle. Even when your groceries are safely at home, you still have to contend with food-borne illnesses. More than 70 million people get sick from food-borne illnesses in the U.S. each year, and roughly 5,000 of them die as a result of it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And if you’re pregnant, diabetic, HIV-positive or over the age of 65, then it’s even more risky for you to sample the grocery store's cheese display or skip the produce bags.
Luckily, there are several precautions you can take — both at the grocery store and at home — to help keep you and your family safe.
1. Sanitize your shopping cart. In a 2007 study at the University of Arizona, researchers found that two-thirds of the grocery carts they swabbed were contaminated with fecal bacteria. In fact, the bacterial counts exceeded those of the average public restroom. Plus, indirect contact with sick people — such as touching the same cart someone with a cold used earlier — is an easy way to get sick. Some supermarkets put their carts through a "car wash" of disinfectant mist, but these stores are few. However, most grocery stores now offer sanitary wipes so shoppers can wipe down carts’ handles. If your local store doesn’t, bring your own or be sure to wash your hands after touching a cart. You can also purchase shopping cart handle covers like this one or even make a handle cover yourself.
2. Wash your reusable bags. You’re doing an eco-friendly thing by bringing those reusable bags to the store — just make sure you wash them. A joint study by the University of Arizona and Loma University in California found that these bags can be a breeding ground for germs and food-borne bacteria. Researchers randomly tested reusable bags in three cities and found that most were home to high levels of bacteria, and E. coli was detected in half of the bags sampled. Don’t let this scare you into going back to disposable plastic bags though — just throw your reusable bags in the wash now and then and you can be both green and clean.
3. Skip the free samples. The deli samples or bowl of dip may look tempting, but they could also be a home to all kinds of bacteria. In fact, a 2010 E. coli outbreakwas linked to cheese samples at Costco. Walk past those free samples in these situations.
5. Watch where you place your groceries — and your kids. Don't put perishables in the seat compartment because children often sit there, making the area a breeding ground for germs. And you might want to think twice before placing your child in that seat. A 2006 CDC study of 442 infected infants in eight states found that riding in shopping carts next to meat was one of the biggest risk factors for Salmonella infections.
6. Check the dates. Before purchasing an item — especially meat and dairy — check its expiration date to make sure the product is still safe to consume. “Sell-by” and “use-by” dates can be confusing, but they’re essentially quality dates that are based on consumer research of when people notice a decline in freshness. According to the FDA, the “sell-by” date tells the store how long to display a product, the “best if used by” date tells the consumer when the flavor is best, and the “use-by” date is the last date recommended to use the product while it’s at peak quality. Typically, food quality is good for seven to 10 days from the time of packaging, such as with dairy products. However, for meat it’s usually about three days.
7. Select prepared foods carefully. If you’re purchasing cold food, such as chopped melon or prepackaged lettuce, it should be maintained at 41 or degrees or below. Most refrigerated shelves have a thermometer attached at the top — if you don’t see one, ask a produce worker to check the temperature. Hot prepared foods should also be stored at the right temperature. Pick the package at the bottom of the pile to find the hottest one.
8. Cover all your food. Place all your produce and raw foods in bags — if you want to go green, pick up some reusable produce bags — because checkout counters’ conveyor builts are covered in germs. When Connie Morbach, a microbiologist with Sanit Air, a company that specializes in testing air in commercial properties, swabbed a supermarket conveyor belt, she found “organisms that are typically associated with open wounds that could cause infections.”
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