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

Cover Design by Laura Shinn.
Cover Design by Laura Shinn.

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?


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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.


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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.


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.