Chapter Eight: Cooked and Raw . . . and the Customer from Hell

Cover Design by Laura Shinn. http://www.laurashinn.yolasite.com
Cover Design by Laura Shinn. http://www.laurashinn.yolasite.com
Raw, and cooked shrimp
Raw, and cooked shrimp

CHAPTER EIGHT

COOKED AND RAW PRODUCT . . . and the customer from Hell.

 

Looking back over my years in the retail food business, and in particular the time spend in the employ of Giant Stuff Mart, I realize that I had a whole lot more enjoyable interactions with customers than the other kind. And for the most part I remember those folks with a great deal of fondness and affection.

As with every rule however, there are exceptions.

One busy Sunday afternoon, a middle-aged guy with a sports team baseball cap approached the meat and seafood counter. I could tell at a glance that he was not a happy camper, first from his face, contorted and twisted into anger as it was. Second, from the fact that he elbowed a couple of waiting customers out of the way to get to me. Third, from the stench of alcohol emanating from him. I didn’t have an idea in the world of why he might be angry. I couldn’t remember anything out of the ordinary happening in the past day or two.

Turned out he wasn’t mad at me—yet.

“Does anyone in this (bad word) store have the slightest idea of what the hell they’re talking about?” he loudly enquired.

Naturally, my Irish sense of humor kicked-in.

“Well, I’ll take a shot at it,” I responded. “Sometimes I’m a little smarter than your average bear.” Of course, I knew I was probably egging him on a bit, but danged, sometimes you’ve just got to have a little fun on the job.

“Where the (bad word) do you keep sliced ham? You know—slices of ham from off a ham,” he explained, apparently in an attempt to clarify his request.

“No problem,” I replied. “Down the end of the meat case. Individual slices of either bone-in or boneless ham. Individually wrapped too. Family or single-serving size.”

“No—not them!” he almost screamed. “I’ve already looked at those. A (bad word) clerk sent me there first. That’s not what I want. I want slices of ham,” he said—even making slicing motions with his hand as he said it.

“Oh, Okay,” I said. “Now I understand. You want the deli department. Just to your right, against the wall.”

Now he was so mad he was almost jumping up and down. “No, you (couple of bad words) moron! I want sliced (bad word) ham. He continued to make absurd and exaggerated slicing motions with his right hand. Kind of looked like karate great Chuck Norris warming up for a movie scene. “The stupid (bad word) deli kid didn’t know what I was looking for either. He sent me here. Doesn’t anyone in this (really bad two words) store know what the (bad word) they’re talking about!”

At this point I probably should have simply called the manager and dropped it in his lap. After all, that’s why they got the big money—around fifty cents an hour more, matter of fact. I didn’t call though, because, darn it, I was just enjoying myself way too much.

“Cubed ham?” I asked

“No—idiot! Not cubed ham. Sliced ham. What do I have to do to make you morons understand?”

“Do you mean like ham in a can that you slice after you open it?” I innocently enquired.

“No!”

“Maybe you could try a regular meat market,” I offered—trying to be helpful.

“I don’t need a meat market,” he shouted. “I used to buy it right here in this (bad word) store before they changed everything around.”

I threw my hands up in the air. “Sorry,” I said. “I don’t have an idea in the world what you’re looking for.”

By now his reddened face looked like it was going to explode.

“You incredible imbecile,” he half shouted, turning and stomping away. Honestly, I thought that was the end of it. I went on to helping the next customer. It wasn’t the end. He was back in about five minutes. I could see him coming—fast—all the way down the middle aisle.

And he had something in his hand. I was happy to see that it wasn’t a gun.

Finally reaching the seafood counter, and again pushing a couple of people out of the way, he slammed down the package he had been holding on the top of the counter. And I mean hard. I think they must have heard that package hit all the way across the rather expansive sales floor. The package burst at the seams under the force of the blow.

“Just what the (insert a long string of really bad words here) do you call this—you (bad word) idiot?

I took a quick glance at what was left of the sliced ham in the package, and replied without hesitation—“Lunch meat. Aisle four.”

It could have gone either way for a second or two, but instead of coming over the top of the counter for me as I expected, he simply spun on his heels are stormed away. And of course, right to the customer service department to file a formal complaint against me. I spent the better of the next fifteen minutes or so explaining to the lady store director, Adele Pensler, why I simply hadn’t called a member of upper management to deal with the irate, drunken, and largely unhinged customer, instead of further inflaming the situation.

After trying a couple of unpromising lines of self-defense with her, I finally got off the hook by simply explaining that sometimes a guy’s just gotta do what a guy’s gotta do. She simply shrugged, gave me a pained look, rolled her eyes and walked away. I figured I was probably going to be fired, or at least suspended, but as a matter of fact, I was wrong.

I never heard another word about it for as long as I worked in the store.

It was days like those that made the job fun, and was largely what kept me working there for so long as I did.

 

Hell

 

The ham that he was looking for was cooked ham, and brings us rather nicely to the next part of our food safety voyage of discovery.

As it turned out, he was actually buying cooked product in the safest form that it is to be had—prepackaged. And here’s why. That ham was cooked, sliced and prepackaged at the wholesale food processing facility where it was created. It was meant to never leave the package until the ultimate purchaser took it home, opened it up, and used the contents. It doesn’t get too much safer than that.

Sure, there are all sorts of horror stories about food processing plants, but by and large, they are very few and far between. Compared that is, to the same product being handled several more times by some very questionably safety-conscious retail-level grocery store employees. The recipe for disaster here could hardly be greater.

You see such products all the time. Especially in the deli. There, most of the food products you see for sale arrived at the store in what they call bulk packages. Then, they are opened and some of the contents are put out for sale. The rest are returned to the walk-in cooler waiting for future use.

It might, or might not, be safe. But for it to be safe, you have to depend on the department employee to safely, and cleanly, handle the product. That includes the dating of the unused product, the safe storage of the unused product, and the rotating of the unused product. Lots of areas here for things to go wrong.

My best advice? Most of the things sold in the full-service case at the deli are also sold as smaller individually prepackaged items in the self-serve case. Trust me when I tell you—these are by far and away the safest form for you to buy your potato salad, macaroni salad, and cole-slaw in. Many, many fewer hands have been involved in the preparation of these products, and the expiration date is always printed right on the side of the container, for all the world to see. And that date is placed there right at the processing plant, on the very day that it was made.

The deli is one of the best places in the store to get a really bad tummy-ache. Or, something a lot longer lasting—like death. Just the one simple expedient of sticking to prepackaged items can go a long, long way to reducing the potential for a food poisoning incident—right in your own home.

I remember a few times myself, standing in front of the deli case and looking at the wonderful displays of ready-to-eat items. One of the deli gals at the time was a friend, and as I would enquire about the quality and safety of one food item after another—she would simply shake her head yes or no. I was warned away from a lot of questionable items that way. And I can also promise you—not many of the general public are going to get such warnings.

For most—you’re on your own. And good luck.

It’s the same throughout the store. Prepackaged meats are less handled and by their very nature safer than anything packaged in the store itself. The same goes for seafood—and triple so if it is a cooked product that you are purchasing. The reason is simple: many pre-cooked items are never reheated, and therefore any harmful bacteria is not going to be killed. Raw items, or at least most of them, are going to be made safe by the cooking process. Even thoroughly reheating pre-cooked items will often times not render it safe, if it happens to contain harmful pathogens introduced by improper food safety handling techniques.

The very safest seafood is without any question whatsoever, that which is quick frozen on the ship where it was caught. These days, even the pre-cooking and quick freezing processing is actually done on the fishing vessel. Quicker and cheaper for the fishermen—and a whole lot safer for you.

If you are going to insist on purchasing pre-cooked seafood items that have been thawed at the retail store and then placed in the full-service case, at least look very carefully at just what it is you are buying. One, first and foremost—look for darkening of the product. Two, and right behind number one—look for a shiny or slimy appearance to the product. These are two really good indicators of product that has set out for far too long.

And product you most definitely do not want on your dinner table at home.

Watch those expiration dates on packaged items like a hawk. Employees are supposed to go through all of the stock daily to cull out expired or near to expiring prepackaged items. Does it happen?

Not by a long shot.

Look a long time at prepackaged product that arrives at the store frozen, but is then thawed by store personnel and dated as to expiration. I have seen a lot of toying around with those dates to reduce shrink. Are they always unsafe? No. Can they be unsafe? You bet. If I were you I would mostly trust the prepacked items that are dated at the processing facility, rather than at the retail store.

Remember, as always—the life you save might be your own. Or that of someone you love even more than yourself.

Next up—Ready to eat, and ready to cook food items. And worst of all—in store prepared sample items.

Or, as I like to call it: A roadmap through a food safety minefield.

 

Thanks for reading today. Back next time with Chapter Nine: Ready to Eat, and Ready to Cook Product . . . or, Through the Minefield.

Until then . . . goodnight.

 

Dumb Joke of the day:

Why didn’t the melons get married?

Because they cantaloupe

canta

 

Chapter Seven: Scales and other Utensils . . .

Cover Design by Laura Shinn. http://www.laurashinn.yolasite.com
Cover Design by Laura Shinn. http://www.laurashinn.yolasite.com

Scales (1)

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 Scales and other Tools

 

The little old lady stood facing me, just the other side of the seafood counter . . . and she wasn’t very happy. I could tell she was getting up there—not just from the two old-fashioned hearing aids protruding from her ears, but also the fact that she insisted on calling me “young man.” Seems her vision might have been beginning to fade a bit as well, as I was right around sixty-two of so years old at the time. Often, when a customer would refer to me that way, I would reply that the eyeglass department was right around the corner.

Anyway, she wanted a fish. One of the whole-body Sockeye Salmon from the ice-table. And she wanted it filleted.

She had shown up at the counter probably an hour before. It was a good time. The middle of the week, a little past seven in the evening, I had zero other customers, and nothing much to do right at the moment. Getting a fish ready for her was going to be a pleasure, and a nice way to advance the movements of the big and little hands on the clock.

The lady—Beverly, as I would find out later—selected a fish, I weighted it up and told her to come back in four or five minutes, plenty of time for me to fillet her fish. Truth of the matter was that I can fillet a nice looking fish in just under two minutes, but like I said, it was a slow night, and I always liked to allow myself a little extra time to do an extra nice job.

She gives me a funny look, but goes her way–wordlessly.

So I finish the fish, wrap it up, and place it on the counter-top for her to pick up. She doesn’t come back. Not in four or five minutes, not in thirty minutes either. It’s not uncommon. Many times a customer will completely forget their order, or simply change their mind and never return. I took the fish off the counter and placed it in the walk-in cooler. She might come back later, I reasoned—or even the next day.

She did come back. About an hour later—and I want to tell you, her shopping cart was loaded. She wheeled up to the counter and asked if her fish was ready yet. “Yup,” I replied. “Just give me a second.”

Returning with her salmon a few seconds later, I handed it to her. She looked it over and very graciously thanked me. However, she also couldn’t resist saying, “Just one thing I can’t understand, young man. Why on earth would it take you forty-five minutes, just to fillet a fish?”

Well, after I carefully explained our miscommunication, we both had a good laugh over it. I apologized for not speaking clearly, and her for not having her hearings aids turned up very high. She said it was no problem—she had been meaning to pick up a few extra things anyway. We became friends, and Beverly returned many times to my counter in the years to come. We almost never failed to joke about that night so long ago. It was a bond between us.

It’s that way with a lot of customers. Frankly, some you just don’t care much for very much—for whatever particular reason. The vast majority are simply faces that come and go. Common, ordinary, and everyday exchanges and interchanges between employee and customer. Quickly forgotten.

And then there are a few like Beverly. Once met, and never forgotten. Sometimes on a first name basis. Sometimes they tell you about their families—or their problems. Sometimes you do the same. I want to tell you—those customers are pure, solid gold.

I’d like to talk about retail weight-scales in this chapter, along with a few of the other tools commonly used in dispensing food products to the end user—that is, the customer. And how a few of them have the potential to make you really, really sick.

It goes back to the priorities of Giant Stuff Mart, which are, if you remember—profits. Each and every single time. I can absolutely assure you, that GSM, or for that matter, any large corporate owned supermarket chain, will never have enough employees to do an adequate job of cleaning and sanitizing food product dispensing tools.

They just simply expect too much from overtaxed and overextended employees for that to happen. Spoons, forks, knives, dishes, mixing bowls, slicing and tenderizing machines, and weight scales are just some of the equipment that probably doesn’t have a lot of cleaning attention lavished on it at any given moment.

Most of the time you simply can’t see the equipment and make a sound judgement as to its condition. Sometimes you have to go on faith. But there is one item you can see—and that’s the weight scales. Generally, they sit right on top of the counter, so the customer can observe that they are getting an honest weigh-up.

 

Typical retail digital weight-scales.
Typical retail digital weight-scales.

 

If it’s a busy store, and the counter person is busy, as they almost always are, these scales can become food poisoning disaster areas just waiting to happen. Sometimes raw product gets placed directly on the scales. Then maybe some shellfish. And then some cooked product. Despite best efforts, there is going to be some cross-contamination going on. Trust me when I tell you—you don’t want that in your life. Easy fix; demand that a simple piece of paper be placed on the scale top before anything is weighted on it. And probably not a simple piece of deli tissue either. Ask for a good sized piece of butcher paper—the same kind they will use to wrap your final order.

As to the other utensils? Well, each and every department that sells product over the counter is going to have what they call three-compartment sinks. They work like this: The compartment on the left is for soapy water. The middle is for rinse water, and the one on the right for water and sanitizer mix. If the counter person is going to use a knife to cut your product (especially cooked product) or a spoon to scoop your product (especially cooked product) simply ask then to swish the utensil in the sanitizer solution in the right sink and rinse it off with clean cold water from the tap. This will atone for a lot of sins in the less than completely clean areas, and will go a good long way toward ensuring against cross-contamination.

Remember—be a pain in the butt when it comes to asking for food safety standards to be enforced. You might just save yourself a pain in the tummy—or something a whole lot worse.

And please don’t rely on state mandated “inspections” to save you. I was on duty many times behind the meat and seafood counter when the state inspectors from weight and measures came in. They are the folks that see that the weight-scales are calibrated properly and indicating the proper weights. After all, we don’t want anyone to get overcharged—right?

The trouble was though, that the inspectors would often set their counter-weights on top of the scales for testing, never seeming to notice or care that the entire surface of the scales were often covered with fish blood and gore. And to the best of my knowledge, they never said a single word about it either, to a worker behind the counter, or to a member of management.

Nope—that wasn’t their job—or they simply didn’t care. The bacteriological condition of the surface of the scales was the job of the health department. And the sad and simple truth of the matter was that the health department didn’t do a very good job either.

But more on that in an upcoming chapter.

 

Thanks for reading. Back tomorrow with another chapter in DEATH AT THE SUPERMARKET.  Chapter Eight: Cooked and Raw Product . . . and how the difference can put you in the ground. Until then . . . Goodnight.

Dumb Joke of the Day:

I’m looking for employment cleaning mirrors. Not exactly sure why, but I think it’s a job I could see myself doing . . .

 

 

Chapter Six: Ice Tables . . . Stack ’em High!

Cover Design by Laura Shinn. http://www.laurashinn.yolasite.com
Cover Design by Laura Shinn. http://www.laurashinn.yolasite.com
Actor Johnny Crawford, in iconic golden-age television program "The Rifleman."
Actor Johnny Crawford, in iconic golden-age television program “The Rifleman.”

Chapter Six

 

Ice Tables . . . “Stack ‘em High!”

 

With Chapter Six we will be moving along to a few specific trouble areas of the grocery store where there is a higher than average potential for mistakes that can make you and your family really, really ill—or much worse.

There is an old maxim in the grocery business that pretty much says that the higher a stack of stuff is, the more appealing a purchaser will find it to be, and will thus be more likely to buy it. When carried to extremes, it can have some pretty predictable results, not the least of which is furnishing never-ending extra employment opportunities to already overworked grocery clerks, in the form of playing fifty-two (at least) pickup. Mostly in the form of knocked over pyramids of cans, boxes, and bottles of whatever it is that Giant Stuff Mart is currently trying to unload to a gullible public on any given day.

The selling phycology here relates to abundance—or the cornucopia effect. It’s basically this: the more stuff the customer sees in a great big pile, the more he or she wants some of that “abundance” for him or herself.

A sort of sharing of the wealth.

Does it work? Yeah—I guess it does. Such giant displays certainly catch my own eye on grocery shopping day. It’s generally a pretty harmless selling technique—right? Well, sometimes yes—and sometimes no.

Sometimes it can be downright deadly.

And of course, I’m going to tell you why.

A lot of it had to do with Mary, the somewhat oversized Food Manager from Chapter One. She liked big displays. They were kind of her “thing.” You just couldn’t get product piled up high enough for Mary. Even when part of the stack was beginning to slide off and avalanche to the ground—she still wanted more.

We used to joke (somewhat ungraciously, I’ll admit) that Mary wanted to see the food in the display cases at work, stacked just the same as it probably was in her refrigerator at home—high!

Large piles of dead fish on the inside of a refrigerated display case were not such a big health and food-safety concern. But when that same pile of fish was placed on the Un-refrigerated ice table, it was an entirely different matter. I know I tried to talk to Mary about it on many occasions, but she just never seemed to get it—or sadly, and much more likely—just didn’t care.

Ice tables work like this: They have no refrigeration whatsoever—except for the ice. And here’s the thing—ice doesn’t put cold into the fish. It simply draws the heat out of the fish.

That bears repeating: Ice does not give its cold to anything. It simply draws the heat out of something. When you leave the front door of your house open on a cold winter day, the cold does not come in—the heat goes out. Your winter coat doesn’t keep the cold out—it keeps your heat in. Remember this rule: Cold doesn’t go to heat. Heat goes to the cold.

It works the same with the ice table.

What is an ice table anyway? Well, just as the name implies, it is a table (generally stainless steel) with a recessed area for holding ice. The one we had at GSM was surrounded on three sides with glass, but often that is not the case. Our ice table was probably used 95% of the time for display of fresh or previously frozen whole-body fish—mostly salmon. On ours, there was no refrigeration (outside of the ice) whatsoever. There are ice tables that do have additional refrigeration, but they are in the minority.

 

Fresh salmon on ice at the Public Market, Granville Island, Vancouver.
Fresh salmon on ice at the Public Market, Granville Island, Vancouver.

 

Anyway, the ice table whole-body salmon display set-up went like this: (1) Shovel the shaved ice onto the table. (2) Put the salmon on top of the ice, in a single layer. The ice draws the heat out of the fish, keeping the fish at about the same temperature as the ice—nice. (3) Sprinkle a little bit of ice over the top of the fish. Not much—it’s just for show anyhow.

That’s it. That’s the whole thing. Should be really simple—right? Well, not so fast. That single layer of fish is violating the “Stack’em High” maxim. To the grocery retailer (that probably doesn’t understand thermodynamics very much) it’s just a flat and largely uninteresting display. No eye appeal. No sales potential. No profit. It needs to be “pumped-up.” Never mind, that in so doing, you are creating the potential for a food poisoning disaster. Never mind at all—it’s all about the money.

Every. Single. Time.

The first layer of fish is doing just fine. The ice is in direct contact with the body of the fish, and is doing a good job keeping it cold. The second layer—well, not so much—although you can probably still get away with it. The third, fourth and fifth layer? That fish is receiving only a small percentage of the cooling effect it should be getting, because the fish is not in contact with the ice at all.

    It’s a disaster in the making, and the only cure for it is to NEVER buy fish (or any other product) on an ice-bed, if the product is displayed more than one or at most two layers thick. The ice sprinkled on top of the fish, is for show. Even if there is no ice whatsoever on top of the fish, it will still be cold and safe as long as the body of the fish is in full contact with the ice, because the ice keeps drawing out whatever heat is in the fish. No contact with the ice—no cooling effect.

Sometimes I could actually feel the difference in temperature between the layers of fish, just by using my hand. The stem-dial type of thermometer would confirm it, usually reading between five to ten degrees different—plenty enough to cause rapid food spoilage.

When I addressed the issue with Mary, the food manager, she would simply shrug and tell me to throw some more ice over the top of the fish. Trust me when I tell you—this is not good management. Of the four or five food managers I worked for over the course of my tenure at GSM, only one really understood the concept—or cared.

Not good odds—not good odds at all.

You do have the option of asking the counter-person to get your fish from the bottom layer. However, I have seen such displays reworked several times over the course of a day, and there is simply no guarantee that the fish now resting comfortably on the bottom layer right next to the ice, was in that same position all day long.

Long story short—better safe than sorry.

Personally, I would love to see a federal food-safety law outlawing the use of un-refrigerated ice-tables in retail food establishments altogether. They are just too dangerous when used by individuals that do not understand the simple principles of heating and cooling.

Sadly, that seems to be a large number of food-safety trained grocery store managers and directors that continually put profits, and their own personal self-interests above that of the safety, health, and well-being of those they are supposed to serve.

 

Thanks so very much for reading today. Be back tomorrow with another installment of DEATH AT THE SUPERMARKET: Chapter Seven . . . Scales, and other tools.

Dumb joke of the day . . .

I never wanted to believe that my Dad was stealing from his job as a road worker.
But when I got home, all the signs were there.

 

signs

 

Chapter Five: Retail Display Cases . . . and the Homeless Sampler

Cover Design by Laura Shinn. http://www.laurashinn.yolasite.com
Cover Design by Laura Shinn. http://www.laurashinn.yolasite.com

A shopping cart belonging to a homeless man used to collect cans and bottles is photographed near a homeless camp under an overpass in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013. Walnut Creek police are planning a city-wide clear out of homeless camps in the city. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

Chapter Five

 

 Retail Display Cases . . . and the Homeless Sampler

 

I’d like to take a step or two away from the meat and seafood counter for just a few moments in this chapter and talk about a national problem, and a couple of areas in the store where this problem has the potential to negatively affect your health and well-being.

The problem is homelessness, and it’s an epidemic in America, just like it is around the globe. With estimates as high as 1.6 million nationwide, it is no small issue. And I can absolutely guarantee you that every community has its problems and challenges regardless of how poor, middle-class, or rich and affluent it might be.

It was just the same in the State of Washington city where I worked at GSM. Affluent. Pricey cars. Big houses. Snobby. Didn’t matter. There were lots of homeless folks.

There, we dealt with them on a daily basis, and it was always something of challenge. After all, the store was set-up to be basically self-service. All day long, hundreds of customers came and went—touching products. Picking them up, and putting them back down again. And in the process, leaving just a little tiny bit of themselves behind in the exchange.

Their germs—and their viruses.

It begins at the front door, with the shopping carts. There is a really good reason most large grocery stores these days have those little dispensers of bacteria killing wipes at the entrances. That’s because those carts, specifically the handles of those carts, are touched and handled by everyone. The clean hands, the not quite so clean hands, and the really, really dirty hands. And the fact of the matter is, once the handles of those shopping carts are touched by really dirty hands, the very next set of clean hands that touches the handles of that cart become just as germ laden as the hands before them.

And then those nice, clean-looking hands go right on spreading the bacteria they have just picked up. To the cans on the shelf of vegetables, to the collar of the shirt hanging over on the non-food side of the store. To the countertop and tabletop of the in-store deli or coffee shop.

You get the idea.

So here’s the tip: use those little wipes when you go into the store. Wipe off the handles of the shopping carts. Wipe off your hands too. After all, you touched the handle of the cart to push it over to where the wipes are. After you finish shopping, stop on your way out and wipe your hands again. It won’t hurt your skin at all. They are very mild. And this little procedure has the potential to save you a rather nasty cold or flu episode.

Another little tip: if there aren’t any wipes in the can, ask someone at customer service to put some out. If they don’t, or they won’t—shop somewhere else. Dad used to say it took a good fourteen days to get over a cold if you went to see a doctor, and two weeks if you didn’t. Humor aside, that’s about right, and just about what you’re saving yourself by demanding and using this simple safety product.

That’s two weeks of misery—who needs that?

 

Homeless (3)

 

Homeless folks tend to be samplers, and who can blame them? It’s free food, and there is generally a ton of product given away at the grocery stores monthly in the form of samples. Some of these samples are prepared in the store by hassled and frenzied store employees, and some by employees of outside companies that are contracted for, and dedicated to, providing this service for the store.

Do you need three guesses as to which are going to be the safest?

Yup, the outside sample provider. Two reasons for this.

The first is that Joe, the outside sample guy, has just this one job to do. If the sample needs to be cooked, that’s what he does. If they need to be kept cold, this is what he does. When the samples are timed out (around fifteen minutes or so) it is his job to throw them away and make new ones. Food safety is his main issue, and one of the services he provides is making sure no one touches the samples in any way, shape or form and returns it to the sample-cup uneaten.

And yes, it happens all the time. A shopper (and depressingly often a wandering homeless sampler) will pick up a food sample in a sample-cup, smell it, perhaps touch it with a finger-tip, even nibble a small piece from it, and then, for heaven only knows what reason, replace it exactly where it was before. I don’t have the faintest idea of why people do it, but I have seen it—hundreds of times.

With Joe, the professional sample guy from Company XYZ, it’s not that big a problem. Wordlessly, he simply throws it away and starts over. When the samples have been prepared by overworked and over-rushed store employees—well, probably no one is going to even see what has just happened. And no one is going to save you from a nasty two week stretch with a cold or flu—or perhaps something much worse.

Here’s the tip: if you shop in a store that offers samples, shop in the ones that have a dedicated employee to do sampling and nothing else. Someone that can ensure food safety principals are being followed. Please don’t take samples cooked by already overworked store employees and carelessly left on countertops. Do you really believe they are being replaced every fifteen minutes? Not me.

I have seen some left out for hours.

     Let’s make a quick stop at the nutrition center. No healthier place in the store than the nutrition center—right?

Well—not so fast.

It might be pretty healthy over there, except for one little, great big thing. The bulk bins. Those rather nice, clean, homey and rustic looking bins and barrels where the customer can just help themselves to good, old-fashioned nutritious bulk foods. Just like the kind grandma used to make.

You can see it coming, can’t you? Yup, that’s right. Those bins are self-service, and all too often, what’s being served out of them is colds, flu, and food poisoning.

There are two kind of bulk bins. One is kinda, sorta okay, and the other I want you to avoid like the plague—because that’s just exactly what they might contain.

 

Homeless (4)

 

Generally speaking, the two kinds of bins work like this: one dispenses contents with the pull of a lever. You probably have to place an open bag over the opening and hold it in place while it slowly fills. This one isn’t too bad. Chances are that it was filled by one nutrition (or candy) department employee from a bulk-bag, and no else has touched it. I especially like the ones that have to be removed from a higher up shelf to be refilled when empty. Once the cover is placed on over the top of the dispenser, this isn’t a bad set-up.

I’d buy from these—and have.

Then there’s the other. Either a jar-like container with a removable lid, or simply a barrel set out on the floor. They always have a scoop for the customer to use to fill their bag. You know the ones. They say either, “Please use the scoop,” or “Please do not use hands.”

I’ll tell you what—please don’t use either, Avoid these health and well-being destroyers like they were fully loaded and ticking time-bombs—for this is just exactly what they are. The worst of the worst of the worst? The ones that are filled with cooked and/or ready to be eaten product. At least if you buy wild rice with mouse or insect droppings in it, or pasta laden with hand transmitted E. coli bacteria, you are going to cook it into a harmless state.

Not so with the peanut, coconut, granola, and mixed candy dispensers. Sadly, a lot of that stuff is going to come into your hands, almost directly from other people’s hands. Perhaps a lot of other hands. And some of those hands probably weren’t very clean either. And it’s not going to be cooked. You really don’t have an idea in the world what sort of harmful things may be lurking in those bins. One thing for sure though. None of it is going to be setting up shop inside your body to do you any good at all.

I won’t bore you with a recitation of all that I have seen go into these type of bins over the years. I have seen employees that caught certain behaviors dump all of the product, wash and sanitize the container, and start completely over. I have seen them sometimes throw them completely away. Sometimes, none of the above was done as well. Depends on how badly store management was rushing the employee on that particular day. Then there is always the issue of disgruntled employee sabotage. Use your imagination.

I can promise you—I have seen worse.

Best bet? Most everything sold in these bulk-bins are sold, albeit at a higher price, in smaller bags and containers, packed at the factory. Yeah, it costs more. Is it worth it? Take a look at the face of the infant in your stroller.

Then you tell me.

Back to meat and seafood (my first love). There are two basic types of refrigerated full-service retail cases here, although many different designs. I don’t want you to get too hung-up on the types, because they both work. More on the designs in a minute.

The full-service display cases keep the product cool with either passive cooling in the top of the case, where the cool air sort of “settles”onto the product while the warm air rises, to be re-cooled, or the cooling guts are in the bottom of the case and the air is forced over the product with small fans built into the case. The former keeps the product looking a bit fresher—the latter tends to dry the product out with the forced air. Shaved ice may, or may not be added to these cases—it’s mostly for show anyway. They generally have some sort of “mister” built in to try to keep this from happening. Hint—the misters really don’t work very well. They are supposed to spray a fine mist of “purified” water. They might. Trouble is, I’ve seen the in-line water filters go years without being changed.

Gee, wonder what it may really be spraying?

The deal with all these cases is—that the worse they look, the more probable it is that they are doing a fairly good job of keeping the food safe. Here’s why. The easier it is for employees to get inside the case for taking it apart and cleaning, the easier it is for unwanted things to get into the case as well. Like flies and other insects. Like mice. Yes, I have actually seen this happen. Like hands, which are, I can assure you, a lot more dangerous that the first two examples.

Which ones are the best? Easy—a good old-fashioned solid-topped display case with sliding glass doors in the back for employees to get the product out. Harder by far to clean than the newer designs, they are the gold standard for food-safety. Add a build-in thermometer in the front where the customer can see it, and you’re pretty good to go.

The worst? Open-topped and front-opening cases. Designed for ease of cleaning and attractive design, over food-safety, these are a nightmare to keep customers out of. I’m not going to go into excessive detail about some of the scary things I have seen customers do to food inside these cases over the years, but trust me when I tell you this one thing, if nothing else. Please do not buy anything from a retail display case that has unlocked (or unlockable) front opening doors.

If a customer, or a kid, can get into it—they will. Simple as that. If certain people can open the front of the case—they will. If they can reach over the glass—they will. You don’t want a customer opening the front of the case, extracting a piece of meat or seafood, sniffing it, and then tossing it back inside. Yes, I have seen it happen. More than that, you don’t want a customer opening a case, tasting a cooked product, deciding they didn’t like it, and tossing the remainder back inside the case.

Think it’s never happened?

Think again.

“Seafood Sally” was a homeless gal. Probably somewhere in her fifties. She had other issues as well. Such as pushing a shopping cart all over Giant Stuff Mart for hours and hours. And talking to herself. And no—she didn’t have a Bluetooth in her ear either. Sally was pretty hard to keep up with. Like I said, she could be in the store for hours on end. She loved the deli, and she loved seafood.

If she had simply wanted a sample or three, she could have just walked up to the counter and asked. But that wasn’t exactly Sally’s style. One particular night I was alone as I watched her prowl up and down the aisles, and especially in front of my seafood case. She eyed the cooked crab cakes. I asked her if I could help her—“no,” she said. I asked if she would like a sample—“no,” she repeated. Finally, I had to go into the back for something. When I returned a minute or two later—Seafood Sally was gone. End of story?

Not by a long shot.

Emptying out the case an hour or two later for cleaning, I saw what she had done. There, sitting in the middle of about forty cooked and ready-to-eat crab cakes was a single one that had a sizeable bite taken out of it. Apparently not to her liking, Sally had simply tossed the half uneaten cake back into the case.

The story gets worse from there.

I called down the evening PIC (person-in-charge) to take a look. I thought it was kind of funny, especially since I had discovered it before any harm was done. Well, this management person (in charge of food safety for the entire store) didn’t think it was funny at all. He was outraged. Not so much about Sally, as about the financial loss to the company.

He instructed me to not only throw the bitten crab cake away, but the three or four others that it was sitting on as well. That was this food-safety trained person’s idea of a healthy solution to the problem—which to me, was a lot scarier than anything poor disturbed old Sally had done in the first place.

Shaking my head slightly as the PIC walked away, I upended the entire tray of forty some crab cakes into the garbage. I would have like to have stuffed him in there as well.

What I want you to take away from this chapter and the moral of the story is this: don’t ever buy anything from a full-service retail food display case that can be opened from the front.

Ever.

Just don’t do it.

Promise me . . .

 

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Thanks so much for reading tonight. Next up . . . Chapter Six: Ice Tables . . . Stack ’em High.

Dumb joke of the day:

Why wouldn’t the shrimp share his wealth?

Answer:  He was a little Shellfish.