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.MORE FROM MNN: Michelle Obama Wins Ellen’s Push Up Contest3. 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.
- The food looks old: If the fruit looks dry or the cheese is sweating, it’s probably been sitting out a while. You don’t want to sample any foods that have been sitting out for more than two hours.
- Communal trays: A sampling station should have individual portions, toothpicks, spoons or forks. Avoid any bowls or platters where people are taking food with their bare hands.
- There’s no staff person: If there’s no one nearby, you don’t know how long the food has been sitting out or how it was handled.
- Poor food preperation: If an employee is cooking food samples, pay attention to how the food is prepared. Are there separate knives and cutting boards for meat and vegetables? Are they using a food thermometer?
- You haven’t washed your hands: If you’re shopping, you’ve probably touched shopping carts and food products, which have germs of their own.