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Watch out for hidden germs in supermarkets

Even if you buy fresh food, you can pick up harmful bacteria and mold. “Today” consumer correspondent Janice Lieberman tells where germs lurk.
/ Source: TODAY

You make sure to wash your hands — a lot. Sometimes you even use a sanitizing wash. So it’s no wonder that you think you are protected against germs. Well, think again. Almost every part of our daily life is filled with germs we would rather not know about. Of course, most of us are not dying — or even getting really sick. But some of our belly aches, respiratory infections or cases of diarrhea may be due to germs we didn’t know existed. On the “Today” show’s five-part special series, “Hidden Germs,” we’re looking at the bacteria and mold in our everyday lives.

In this column, I look at one of life’s basics: grocery shopping. You try to buy the freshest fruits and vegetables. You may even be buying organic produce for your family. And you probably go out of your way to buy red, juicy pieces of beef, and milk in containers with date stamps that haven’t expired. You are a smart, responsible shopper — or so you thought. But what happens when the environment you shop in isn’t all that clean?

To find out what kind of germs lurk in supermarkets, we invited Connie Morbach, a microbiologist with Sanit Air, a Troy, Mich.-based company specializing in testing air in homes and commercial properties, to join us in a shopping spree at three stores in New Jersey. With a hidden camera in tow, we grabbed a shopping cart, some swabs, and a few test tubes and followed Morbach as she snooped around the store looking for places where bacteria and other germs like to hang out. We then sent the samples to an independent lab in Michigan. The results were anything but pretty.

The germs we found in the stores usually aren’t serious threats to healthy people. But if someone has a compromised immune system, is elderly, or is quite young, then he could be more susceptible to getting ill. The best advice to prevent getting sick is to always wash your hands after going out in public, and especially before and after you handle food.Remember that the three supermarkets aren’t necessarily representative of your local store or the grocery store industry at large. The Food Market Institute, a trade association, issued a statement on this subject: “Bacteria are everywhere, including in food stores ... Almost all states [including New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania] require that each food store employ a certified food safety manager ... Supermarkets are cleaned and sanitized throughout the day. Food contact surfaces and equipment are cleaned and sanitized every four hours unless stored under refrigeration; then they are cleaned once every 24 hours. Every food store is regularly inspected by health department officials and a store will not be allowed to operate unless approved by health department inspectors.”

Fruits and vegetables
Those shiny fruits and veggies that look so nice and crisp after being misted with water may not be so clean. Morbach took a look at the irrigation spigots and found that they were black with dirt. Also, most store systems recycle the water, so produce is being sprayed with dirty water. We took water samples and sent them to Morbach's independent testing lab. Are your ready for the results? The irrigation misters were full of bacteria. “Well, it was absolutely disgusting,” Morbach says. “It was coming out of dirty diffusers and it was full of bacteria.”

Not even the organic produce section was exempt from germs. In one store, we found organic broccoli sitting in stagnant water. Any type of stagnant water is not a good sign. We sent a sample to Sanit Air’s lab. And what did we find? The broccoli was in a bath of dangerous bacteria. And remember that run-of-the-mill bacteria that exist in nature can grow — and spread — under favorable conditions.

MeatWant to hear more? Or are you too disgusted to go on?  If you’re brave, then find out what’s in the meat department, where poultry and beef juices are caked on shelves and pork fat is stuck on the grates. “There were actually pieces of pork that were in the meat case itself,” Morbach says. “And in the poultry case we had meat juices running out of containers.” Once again, she swabbed some samples and sent them to her lab. The results? They found bacteria that can cause infections.

DairyIn the dairy section, we found cartons containing cracked eggs that had leaked and dried on the shelves. “We found various types of bacteria on the dairy case,” Morbach says. “Outside of the spilled milk, we found actual molds that at times can cause infections and trigger allergic reactions.”Prepared foodsOf course, we all know raw fish has its own food safety risks. But Sanit Air scientists found that some of the risk was due to how the sushi bar was situated in the grocery store. In one supermarket, potted plants were placed next to the sushi. The scientists’ assessment?  Disgusting! Potted plants sit in dirt. And a carpet near one sushi bar was caked with old food, a veritable bacteria playground. 

Checkout counter Surprisingly, the grocery carts we tested were relatively clean. But the checkout counters’ conveyor belts weren’t. “I found organisms that are typically associated with open wounds and could cause infections,” Morbach says.

Shopping tipsBefore you write off grocery shopping for good and start ordering online, here are some tips:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly as soon as you get home.
  • Wash all your produce carefully, especially if it’s been misted.
  • Check the “sell by” or “used by” dates to make sure they haven’t expired.
  • Wrap fruits and vegetables in plastic at the store. Don’t place uncovered raw items directly on the checkout conveyor belt.
  • Choose prepared foods stored at the right temperature. If it’s supposed to be hot, make sure it is. Pick the package at the bottom of the pile for the hottest one. If it’s raw and needs refrigeration, make sure the case is cold. Again, pick from the bottom where it remains the coldest.
  • If it doesn’t look good, don’t buy it.

Several years ago, the supermarket industry, in partnership with government and consumer organizations, developed a consumer education program called Fight BAC, which emphasizes four key principles for consumers to know and follow, including:

  • Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often
  • Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate
  • Cook:  Cook to proper temperature
  • Chill: Refrigerate promptly

How to pick a supermarketMorbach advises examining your store’s overall cleanliness. “If you see crumbs on the floor or if you see spilled items,” she says, “that should automatically be a red flag.” Also, look at the store’s shelves. Watch out for spilled milk or spilled juice. “Even if germs don't get inside the container, we’re touching the containers,” she says. “That’s a concern.”See how food is stored. Cold food should be kept cold. And hot ones should be kept hot. “If it looks like [food] was made at the beginning of the day and it’s sitting in that warm container all day, it’s not a good idea to buy it,” she says.

Here’s what to look for:

  • Be on the lookout for spills.
  • Look at how the food is stored.
  • If you see unsanitary conditions at your supermarket, notify the manager.
  • If it remains dirty the next time you shop, take your business elsewhere.

Janice Lieberman’s Bottom Line: Wash your hands when you get home from food shopping. Also wash any vegetables, cartons and cans that you bring home. Bag all raw materials at the grocery store so they don’t touch the conveyer belt. Be conscious of the fact that hundreds of people visit the supermarket, so we are talking not only about food-borne germs, but germs that exist in any public place. Remember, you can carry germs home along with your groceries.  And finally, shop at a grocery store where you feel comfortable about the sanitary conditions.

Janice Lieberman is the “Today” show’s consumer correspondent. She joined NBC News as a consumer reporter in 1999. She is author of “Tricks of the Trade: A Consumer Survival Guide.” She is a graduate of Rutgers University.