Death at the Supermarket: Sticks and Stones



                        CHAPTER THREE    


Sticks and stones may only break your bones, but here’s two

words that can kill you

There’s an old saying about sticks and stones and words. Most of us heard it a lot when we were growing up. Out on the playground. Words can’t kill—right? Well, not so fast. In the Alice in Wonderland world of the big-box supermarket vocabulary—they sure can, and they do.

It’s the most often, and the most over-used word in modern advertising. “Fresh.” There was a time, and not so terribly long ago, when that wasn’t true. Throughout the mid-twentieth century, the advertising buzz-word that reigned supreme was; “New.” I’m old enough to remember it. Back when I was a kid, we used to hear it about a million times a day on the television commercials. Everything was “new,” from Gerber Brand baby-foods to Zucchini Squash, and about a ton and a half of laundry detergents in between. It’s still used today, although not nearly as much. It’s been supplanted by “fresh” everything.

Take a turn around the old grocery store and you’ll quickly see what I mean. Chances are you’ll encounter the word not only on the packaging of grocery items, but in big bold letters placed high up on the walls and hanging from placards. Some examples: Fresh Produce. Fresh Meat. Fresh Seafood. Fresh Dairy. Fresh Deli. Fresh Eggs—and so on. Used to be an old joke about the so-called “fresh” eggs. The chicken lays the eggs. The farmer gathers them up and stores them in the barn for a few days. Then he sells them to the wholesaler. They sit around there for another week or so before they get sent on to the distributer. The same thing happens there before they head out to the supermarket warehouse. Heaven only knows how long they are there. At least by this point they are maybe getting some refrigeration. Now on to the grocery store itself. Again (if we’re lucky) they get put in a cooler where once again, they sit and wait to make their way out to the sales floor. Eventually they do—where they are placed directly under the “fresh” eggs sign.

You get the idea. Small wonder that eggs are one of the most potentially deadly products in the store.

It’s the same with the other items too. You know, the meat, seafood, deli and all those other “fresh” items. And yes they are. Fresh, that is . . . by one definition of the word. They’ve never been frozen. Yup, that’s it. The grocery business definition of the word “fresh,” is, “never frozen.” In the famous words of Indigo Montoya; “That word . . . I do not believe it means what you think it means.” To the customer and the consumer, fresh means—well, fresh. As in, just arrived. In peak condition. Not old. Really, really good and wholesome. To the supermarket, it means—never frozen.

What I am telling you here is that a supermarket employee can put a piece of meat, or seafood, or anything else into a display class, and tell the customer that it is “fresh,” even if it has been sitting in the back of the store for ten days and is curling up around the edges and turning black.

And that employee can do it completely legally.

And that rotten piece of meat or seafood or whatever has the potential to possibly make you sick, or much, much worse—make you dead. It happens all the time. I have seen such “fresh” products sold over and over and over. I even had one (food safety trained) manager of Giant Stuff Mart’s seafood department tell me personally, when I confronted him over spoiled “fresh” food . . . “It’s my job to sell that product.” He was proud to have put one over on the customer. Perhaps the customer that purchased that “fresh” product and spent the night in the bathroom vomiting their insides out, didn’t think it was such a great joke.

Perhaps even less so at a loved-one’s funeral.

Why did that unethical manager want to sell bad food? Answer—to limit the companies “Shrink.” Which brings us to the second word that can kill you. Dead. Forever. And it’s all in the name of profits.

Profits over people.

Every. Single. Time.

Just what is “Shrink?” Well, it is virtually everything that the store buys and brings in to sell, that for one reason or another never gets sold. It becomes a “loss” for the company. There could be a lot of reasons for the loss. Maybe the item is stolen. Millions of dollars in shrink in the United States each year can be attributed to theft. It’s no small matter. In the case of Giant Stuff Mart and its parent company, the total shrink from theft at the end of the year is comparable to the annual budgets of many small third-world countries.

Most often however, there are other reasons for the loss. The item might have been damaged in the store because of bad handling. It might have been damaged by a customer. Perhaps it was purchased and returned by the purchaser, and is not in good enough shape to be resold. As you can see—many, many reasons for shrink. On the food side of GSM, the number one reason for shrink is damage due to spoilage, or out-datedness. As in, the product hasn’t sold by the end of the expiration date, on those items (generally pre-packaged) that have expiration dates.

Employees in GSM, and especially department managers, are under extreme pressure to limit, reduce, and eliminate shrink by whatever means possible. And I’m here to tell you, their jobs are dependent on it. A fish or piece of expensive meat falls on the floor. It should become shrink and be thrown away. Most times, it will simply be picked up and put back into the display case; ready, willing and able to be sold—and possibly make someone really, really sick. Why? Because the floor is the one place in the department that catches everything. All of the drips, runs, splatters and nasty things that employees track into the department on their shoes all day long. And all those things fester days and sometimes even weeks on those unclean and unwashed floors. That’s where bacteria grows—and not the good kind.

The kind that can put you away—forever.

Sure, cooking kills germs. So in many cases the bacteria from the floor on the food item will be killed and the product rendered harmless. What about the rare and medium-rare cooked steaks? What about the already cooked items that are sometimes not reheated at all? They get dropped on the floor too. Think it doesn’t happen? Think again. I have personally witnessed it over and over again. I have actually seen employees drop food items onto the floor and pick it up again, finish wrapping it for the customer and hand it over to them. If the customer didn’t happen to notice, or chose to not speak up—well, too bad for them.

A really great place for the department manager to get rid of shrink and make himself, or herself look better, is to put it into what is called “prepack.” Prepack are those little cling wrap covered Styrofoam trays and/or tubs that contain product that the store employees package themselves.

From the time the employee takes a piece of meat or seafood from wherever it was, and puts it into a tray and labels it, it has to be sold within three days. The price tag will have the date that it was packaged, and the date it must be sold by—generally three days. Problem is, customers generally assume good intentions and imagine that the product inside the package was new or “fresh” when it went into the package.

Oh, if that were only true.

In most instances, the product that was put into those attractive little trays was getting old and was about to become “department shrink.” This is different from “store shrink,” and I’m going to tell you how. Imagine if you will, that seafood department manager Sally has a ten pound box of Halibut that has sat in the cooler for eight days and is unsold. Halibut is selling at the moment for twenty dollars a pound. Now if Sally simply throws the old fish out, the department and her has sustained a two hundred dollar loss. All at one time. Too much of that and Sally’s looking for a new job.

What is Sally to do? She’d like to throw it out, because she knows that the Halibut is about to become unsafe to eat—if it isn’t already. On the other hand, she really, really needs the job. To keep a roof over her head and feed her family.

The family or the customer. Want to guess who wins?

Here’s what she does—to turn that two hundred dollar department shrink and the potential loss of her job into harmless store shrink. She put all ten pounds of that slowly rotting Halibut into prepack and places it out in from of the full-service case for sale.

Now remember; once it’s in the package, she has only three days to sell it. It’s already eight days old. The customer assumes it’s new, or “fresh.” Day one, the fish is nine days old. Maybe the customers buy it, maybe they don’t. The next day, day number two according to the package, but actually day ten, that fish is getting pretty darned dangerous. An upset stomach at best. Maybe something much worse. Tomorrow, day three, is the last day it can be legally sold. So what does Sally do? She marks down the price to attract buyers to the product that is now eleven days old. Sometimes the marked down price can be as much as forty or fifty percent off the original price—a powerful incentive to buy.

If it sells—fine and wonderful for Sally. If it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t matter to her. She has done everything she can to move the product. She has taken what the store calls “price-action,” lowering the price of the product to sell it before it has to be thrown out. If she has done all she can do to sell it, and it remains unsold, she can scan it out of the store’s computerized inventory system, and the shrink is no longer hers—it’s now the store’s shrink, and Sally is off the hook. The customer that purchased what they thought was only three day old fish but was actually eleven—well, maybe not so much. Chances are they got a really nasty, bad tasting dinner.

And maybe they got something much, much worse.

Fresh, and Shrink. Two words that can kill you.

What can you do to protect yourself and your family? Well, start off by asking just exactly what the condition of the product is. Don’t simply say, “Is it fresh?” Remember, it can be starting to stink to high-heaven, but if it’s never been frozen, the employee can truthfully, and legally, say it is. Better, ask if it has ever been frozen. Ask when it was thawed. Ask how it was thawed. If it’s fresh, as in never frozen, you are going to have to depend on your eyes, and nose to tell you if it is good to eat or not.

A lot more on that later.

And prepack? Sadly, I have to recommend that you do not buy it at all. There is just really no way to know for sure if what you are putting before your family on the dinner table is four hours old, four days old, or fourteen days old. And yes, I have actually witnessed product fully two weeks old being marketed and sold as “fresh.”

There really ought to be a law.

But sadly . . . there isn’t.


Thanks so much for reading today. Back in a couple of days with another installment of THE RECKONING. Johnny O’Brien is still in hot water, and it’s time for the “kid” to get him out.

See you then . . .


Dumb Joke of the day: