It all started simply enough. With a huge banner that stretched out over the apparel entrance to the big-box store. It said “Now Hiring,” in big, bold letters. Very inviting. It looked like a nice place to shop—and to work. GSM (Giant Stuff Mart) sold a lot of stuff alright—close to a quarter of a million different items. All the way from baby clothes to motor-oil, and gardening supplies to groceries. The food side was about half of the entire store. It was a really big deal, and by far, where most of the money was made. The grocery side of the store also had fresh meat and seafood counters. That’s where I would end up.
I had just moved into town and was looking for a job. In my old state of residence, I had been a health-care employee, and had done that for quite a number of years. I was getting a little burned out on it, to tell you the truth, and my lovely wife knew it.
“Why don’t you apply for a job here?” she asked. “It would be a change of pace for you. Besides that,” she continued, “they’ll pay you more and treat you better.”
So I did. And yes I was—hired that is. In the meat and seafood department. And yes, my wife was correct by half. They did pay more. Better treatment . . . well, that is an entirely different matter, and there will be a lot more on that a little later on, and why that is important to you.
I would remain in the employ of GSM for over eight years after that, and brother do I want to tell you . . . I learned a boatload. Literally, the good, the bad, and the really, really flat-out butt-ugly truth of the retail food business.
Like my good friend Johnny O’Brien always says, I know some things. And yes, a lot of them could actually, and literally, save your life, or the lives of your loved ones. I invite you to join with me as we explore a lot of those very critical, and life-saving areas. I’ll try to tell you the things you need to know to keep yourself and your family safe—and I’ll try to relate those things to you in a humorous and non-dry way. But when I make a serious point—as in one that has the potential to put you in a hard box with soft lighting and soft music—I’m going to let you know. I’ve seen way too much sickness, and too much death in my time, to want to sugar-coat anything.
I’ve worked at more retail grocery outlets than just one, although the majority of my experience has been with GSM. Those who know me will recognize it easily. That’s why I want to say, right here at the outset, that GSM is not unique in any way. There are dozens of large corporate owned supermarket chains in the United States, and in the world. There are hundreds of thousands of smaller independent stores, and millions of other outlets that sell groceries, or food prepared on site, like restaurants and snack counters. Every single thing that I am going to tell you applies to each and every one, to one degree or another. GSM is not much better, nor very much worse than the others. Some establishments do an incredibly good job of ensuring food safety. Others—well, not so much. I am going to try to teach you how to tell the difference. And what you can do to make a difference as well. That’s why I am including a call to action at the end of the chapters. For those that want to get involved, there is plenty of opportunity to do so.
I’m also going to be talking about a lot of people in this book. Most are not individuals—but compilations of various characters I have known over the years. No one should take any sort of personal issue, because the odds are astronomical that it is not you I am referring to—but rather several different individuals at once. Each and every business mentioned herein has been given a fictional name, as well as the people talked about. As stated in the front of this book, all real-people, and real-place references have been changed—to protect both the innocent and the guilty equally.
Come with me then, as we travel down the supermarket aisles, and head toward those meat and seafood cases.
Welcome to my world, the real-life world of Larry the fish-guy.
The Out of Touch Food Manager
I swear to you, I could almost feel her coming long before I caught sight of her rounding the corner. The ground shook slightly. Mary was the Food Manager, the store second-in-command, and she wasn’t a very petite woman. Around a hundred and sixty pounds or so. Trouble was, that was on only one side. Put together, both sides equaled a lady of imposing dimensions. Mary carried a lot of weight—in more ways than one.
Of course I fully realize that much excess weight is a serious disease, and often an indication of rather severe emotional problems that might make it hard to focus on your job. I sympathize with that. I get that. But not when it interferes with job number one—food safety. And that was the problem. Mary rarely left the comfortable chair in her office to take anything but a perfunctory look at her domain. Unfortunately, that included the issues of food safety. One thing I want you to understand about Mary—she’s a real nice lady—outside of work. Probably not a mean bone in her body—outside of work. Probably someone you could enjoy knowing—again, on the outside. Might have a good time sitting with her at the local pub and kicking back a couple of beers. Probably a great friend. But at work . . . a complete disaster. Her “laissez-faire” (hands-off) managerial style could get a person killed—either by flat-out ignorance, or by accident—likely good intentions notwithstanding.
Mary had one, and only one consideration and focus when it came to running the food department of this major-chain grocery store. And that was that she had a whole lot more layers of management above her, and even more yet at the national corporation that owned the chain. Her concern was for them, not the customers.
Each and every single one of those higher-up managers had one thing in common. That was, they each felt the need to protect (at any and all costs) the managers above them—and so it went, all the up to and including the President of the chain, and the CEO of the national corporation. That was what their jobs depended on. That, and making the company lots and lots of money. Completely aside from their monthly salaries, each and every one of them received annual bonuses (based on profits) and they received them just before Christmas every year. Sometimes they amounted to quite a bit of money. At the highest levels, we’re talking millions. Powerful motivation. Keep your job and get a bonus—just in time for Christmas shopping. Only two things you had to do to make that happen. Make sure that the company had very few loses, and make sure there was very little, if any, down time. You see—time is money—on steroids, in the grocery business. It is very, very competitive, and profit margins are slim.
I’ve called the store Giant Stuff Mart (GSM) and now I’ll name the national parent corporation Super Giant Stuff Mart (SGSM). In the department of GSM where I worked, we sold meat and seafood. There were two display cases. One for the meat, and one for the seafood. Each was twelve feet long. The front-opening kind (a lot more on that later). That’s a lot of meat and seafood. And on this particular day, it was a lot of meat and seafood that was getting warm and going bad—fast.
To be safe, and to comply with Health Department regulations, the cases have to be refrigerated to a temperature of forty-one degrees Fahrenheit, or preferably lower. They cannot remain above forty-one degrees for more than two hours, and be in compliance. This day they were temping at forty-five to forty-six degrees—and it was going on an hour and a half. There was a problem somewhere, and we tried our best to find out where it was. No luck. We couldn’t find any obvious issues anywhere, so it was time to call down the big (no joke intended here) guns. The Food Manager and her assistant. We’ll call him John. He was like a shadow. Where Mary went, there also would be John. But then we always liked to joke that management traveled in packs.
Now, you need to understand that the Health Department rules covering this situation would call for the removal (or pulling) of the product (the meat and seafood) out of the case immediately. Then it would be put onto rolling meat racks and rolled into a large walk-in cooler, where it would be largely unavailable for sale. A repairman would be called to service the cases. It would probably take at least twenty-four hours. This was the proper protocol. This would save not only the product, but potentially, customer’s health (and maybe their lives) as well. But guess what? That would result in down-time—the kiss of death to profits and those lovely annual bonuses—not only for management employees of GSM, but SGSM as well. Additionally, too much down-time, and Ms. Mary and Mr. John could chance losing not only their annual bonus checks, but their jobs as well.
To make a long story short—it wasn’t about to happen.
Mary and John lumbered onto the scene. Us poor grunts (the lowly paid sales clerks) patiently explained the problem. Blank stares from both Mary and John. No action. None. No call to pull the product or even ice it (adding shaved ice to the case). Nothing. Mary instructed us to “keep the doors closed as much as possible” (while still opening them to make sales of course) and continue to take the temperatures, and report to them every two hours. We did. Still no action. Not that day, not that week, and not at the end of the month either.
What I am telling you is that two professional food managers (both food safety trained) of a very major grocery chain-store sold tainted and very unsafe meat and seafood for weeks and weeks at a time. Did anyone notice the four or five degree difference in the product? Yeah—probably they did. In some cases, this food might not have seemed of very high quality to the purchaser. Perhaps they didn’t like the way it looked or smelled after cooking. Perhaps they returned it to the store for a refund. Maybe they didn’t. Perhaps they threw it out. Perhaps they served it anyway. Maybe it didn’t make them sick. Or maybe it did. Might have made them ill for an afternoon. Perhaps a whole day. Maybe they put it down to a “touch of the flu.” Chances are, the next day they felt fine.
But it didn’t kill anyone—right? . . .
Well—not so fast. We don’t know that for sure. And I’ll tell you why. In the very next chapter—entitled, “Killing Grandma, and The Rat-Boy.”
It’s a killer of a story.
Stay tuned for that. But here’s what I want you to take from this first chapter.
(1) Purchase “fresh” meat and seafood from large corporate chain-stores at your own risk and peril. And when you do, always remember those layers upon layers of management worried about their jobs—and those sizable end-of-year bonuses. You are “probably” (but not always) better off at a smaller and more specialized meat and seafood shop. Shopping where you know the people, and the people know you, is never a bad motto and strategy. I know for a plain fact that counter people are much more likely to warn customers they know and are friendly with away from potentially bad food than those they don’t know. You’ll find this type of personal service most usually (but not always) in smaller shops.
(2) Those twelve-foot long cases? Some have temperature gauges on the outside. Where the customer can see them. At the very least demand that employees place a (really cheap, but effective) stem thermometer in the case facing toward the customers. No fibbing with this set-up. Effective, but not as good as the build-in type. Shop in the stores and shops that have those. They cost more money for the store to buy and install, but it could very well be a matter of life and death.
Your life . . . and your death.
Thanks so much for reading. Back in a few days with a new installment of THE RECKONING.
Dumb Joke of the Day: