4 Supermarket Shopping Mistakes Nearly Everyone Makes
Could you be bringing home more than the bacon? A side of salmonella, say?
Of the 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses each year in the U.S., nationwide recalls and high-profile incidents at restaurants dominate the news. But it’s just as easy to get sick from food you prepare in your own kitchen. In fact, the way you shop for and shlep home groceries can impact how safe the food you feed your family is. Read on to find out if you’re making any of these common marketing mistakes and how to correct them.
Related: Food Safety Fails
Marketing mistake #1: Lumping chores together
It’s efficient to run several errands at once. But if your to-do list will have you out and about for hours, make grocery shopping the last thing you do, especially on hot days. The bacteria naturally found on food can thrive and reproduce at temperatures between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F — what the Department of Agriculture (USDA) calls the “danger zone.”
On a 70-degree day, the USDA advises keeping perishable food out of refrigeration for no more than two hours. On a 90-degree day, the USDA says perishables should be out of the cold for no more than one hour.
If you have no choice but to shop first and you know you won’t be home within the danger zone, stash an ice filled cooler in your car and drive with the air conditioner on. Park in the shade if you make a stop: On a 70-degree day, the inside of a car can easily exceed 100 degrees if left in the sun.
If you can’t cart a cooler to the store, you can buy an insulated cooler bag at the checkout. Buy ice too, because the insulation alone won’t buy you much extra time. Even if you’re going straight home, it’s a good idea to pack cold foods together to help them stay cooler. Be sure not to let raw meat mingle with other refrigerated goods (see below).
Marketing mistake #2: Shopping the outer aisles first
With only an hour or two to get fresh food from market to fridge, it’s important to treat your shopping trip like a game of beat the clock. The timer doesn’t start when you leave the store, though. For perishable items it starts the minute you take them out of the freezer or refrigerated section of the store.
Plan your route through the supermarket so that you first fill your cart with shelf stable staples. That means rather than start at the perimeter of the store, begin in the aisles where bread, crackers, canned goods and other shelf stable staples are located.
Next pick out your produce, then your frozen items. Save meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy foods for last.
Marketing mistake #3: Cross-contaminating groceries
Salmonella, E. coli and listeria are among the scariest pathogens in the food supply, and all three are most commonly associated with meat and eggs. Cooking meat to a safe internal temperature is enough to kill the vast majority of these pathogens, but it’s only half the battle.
When you buy raw meats or eggs, wrap each package or carton in separate plastic produce bags (most groceries stores make bags available in the meat/poultry/seafood area; if yours doesn’t, grab a few extras when you’re shopping in the produce aisle). Tie bags closed and organize them strategically in your cart — away from any foods that are raw or ready to eat, or on the lower tier of the cart, just above the wheels. Drippings from a package of chicken or a leaking egg can easily contaminate the raw veggies you plan to use in a salad, for example.
Bring along a bottle of hand sanitizer to clean your hands after you’ve bagged meats and poultry.
When you’re checking out, place the meat on the conveyor belt last and ask the clerk to bag it separately in plastic, since plastic is non-porous and won’t allow liquid to leak through during the ride home. If you bring your own shopping bags, set aside one or two washable tote bags with plastic liners to use exclusively for raw proteins.
Marketing mistake #4: Mingling the raw and the cooked
Store-cooked foods — pizza, soups, rotisserie chickens — need special treatment. Check them for a time stamp to see when they were set out. If you can’t find a stamp, ask a manager when the food was set out — even if kept at temperatures above 140 degrees, the USDA recommends eating hot foods within four hours of being cooked. After that it should be tossed.
Many states require stores to pull items that have sat out longer than that, but you should still do some quick math before buying. A platter of wings set out three hours earlier is probably safe if you plan to eat them as soon as you’re home. But if dinner is a few hours away find out if fresh batch of wings will be out soon, or change your menu. If an employee is serving the food from behind a counter, just ask when the batch was prepared. Cooked foods behind the deli counter that are sold cold are fine, because they’ve been adequately refrigerated after cooking.
In the store and on the way home, keep hot foods bagged separately and away from perishable items like milk or yogurt since they’re especially prone to spoilage.