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Expert Column: Banishing Bacteria From Shoppers’ Grocery Baskets


According to a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report spanning the 10 years up to 2008, "more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity." This is a worrying statistic for the consumer, but also a red light for supermarkets when it comes to their own in-store cleaning policies and products. From the more benign bacteria that can be killed by correct storage and cooking, to the more virulent, antibiotic-resistant strains, supermarkets must deal with them all with equal intensity.

From the farm to the processing plant, onto the trucks, into the supermarkets and, potentially, into the hands of many shoppers: This is the trail that our food takes before we buy it and, when you consider that, it's not difficult to see the potential for spreading foodborne bacteria. As wrapped, protected and packaged as some products are, there are products that are always going to be susceptible to bacterial infection, which can spread easily and rapidly if proper care isn't taken.

For the sake of this discussion, let's take one of the prime leaders in potentially spreading bacteria: chicken. With Americans buying approximately 83 pounds per capita each year, it's unrealistic to believe that it can ever be without the risk of a little bacteria. In fact, the USDA itself found that 24 percent of chicken parts are contaminated with salmonella. Of course, cooking chicken properly is one way of staving off illnesses from pathogens such as campylobacter, salmonella or E. coli, but there’s much more to consider before it reaches consumers' kitchens.

In the case of bacteria spreading in supermarkets, consumers would certainly like to know that grocers are doing their best to counter or eradicate it. But what, if anything, are they doing, or what, perhaps, should they be doing? These are serious questions with serious implications.

Food Safety Precautions

Naturally, consumers would like to think that supermarkets are as ultra-vigilant as they are at home. With so many customers and so much potential for bacteria, there's certainly no limit to the measures that can and should be taken by supermarkets. For example, using powerful, broad-spectrum protection is one sure-fire way of lowering the risk of the spread of bacteria. Not only should this be employed, the disinfection should be powerful enough not just to eradicate the bacteria, but also to work as a protective shield for a prolonged period. In doing this, supermarkets can protect customers on a daily basis, as well as protect store products.

Here are a few other pointers for supermarkets:

  • Display temperatures for ready-made food: Hot food should be stored at no lower than 135 degrees Fahrenheit, and cold at no higher than 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Place plastic bags by raw beef/poultry to provide extra protection from cross-contamination.
  • Encourage customers to bag all meat to prevent the spread of raw juices to other products.
  • Encourage customers to separate raw poultry/beef from other products in their carts.

When all bacteria-based hazards are considered, it's easy to see why supermarkets need so much protection. Genuine microbial control is imperative for more effective and lasting hygiene in supermarkets.

For overall bacterial infections, most supermarkets are in need of a high-end product which is able to completely disinfect surfaces and offer a faster pathogen-killing option, as well as a 24-hour residual kill window in a safe, nontoxic antimicrobial product. One of the critical attributes of such a product is that it doesn't promote microbial resistance.

Ultimately, for supermarkets, the goal must be to meaningfully reduce the amount of potential cross-contamination that can occur every day if shelves and products aren't properly stored or disinfected. By reducing the incidence of cross-contamination, supermarkets can lower the number of foodborne illnesses, and thus, the total annual costs incurred by the food industry are likely to see a significant drop –- yet another reason for supermarkets to up their cleaning and disinfecting game.

Another valuable tip would be the ongoing and consistent use of hard-surface disinfectants. High volumes of customers, masses of product (meat and produce are particularly problematic when it comes to the spread of bacteria) and varied temperatures are a perfect recipe for bacteria to thrive.

In terms of disinfecting agents, supermarkets have a stringent responsibility to protect the consumer. Their best bet would be to use a disinfectant or cleaning product that's clearly labelled as being safe for use in a diverse range of environments, including schools, restaurants, homes, medical facilities, public institutions, day care facilities, and even on children's toys and play areas.

Whatever the techniques, products, policies or processes, one thing is certain: Keeping bacteria out of supermarkets should always be on the menu.

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