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

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