The Unhealthy Health Department: or, half past two . . . all afternoon
I could smell it long before I could see it, and it wasn’t the first time it had happened either.
The aging sewer system at Giant Stuff Mart had backed up—again. And it had blown-out—again. The epicenter was the meat and seafood department, but it hadn’t started there. It began in the grocery stockroom, specifically the produce storage area—and it was a real mess.
There was a restroom back there, mostly used by employees. And it was an oldie, being around since the late 1960’s. We’re talking nearly half a century here, and the plumbing of the aging building just wasn’t quite to the latest standards.
Every once in a while it would get backed up and the pressure would build. When the pressure got high enough, the access cover in the middle of the floor in the stockroom would blow. And it would blow high, sending a cascading stream of black water and you know what about three feet into the air and out onto the sales floor. The main grocery aisle to be exact, right between the self-service sections of meat and seafood, and the produce department. For a short time, this man-made torrent would flow like a small stream—all over the grocery section of Giant Stuff Mart.
The river ran under pallet after pallet of raw produce in the stockroom, under the stockroom entrance door, and onto the sales floor, under and in front of the self-serve meat and seafood cases, self-serve produce cases, and the full-service meat and seafood counter. And yes, this small dark river carried human feces and urine with it—in surprising large and odorous quantity.
By the time I got to work that day, the professional plumber had been called and was on his way, and there was a medium sized crew of employees at work trying to get the situation under control. They were literally up “you know what” creek—and, with very few paddles. Employees had cordoned off the area with shopping baskets and were busy with hand-held squeegees and a very large power liquid vacuum machine generally used for night-time floor washing.
It was never designed for the use it was being put to—choking up on the larger chunks. I remember one of the customers asking an employee of the store (one with a good sense of humor) just what was going on. The employee answered, tongue firmly in cheek, “Well, ma’am, it’s just a little problem with time.” As in—“It’s too turdy—all afternoon.”
It was a good laugh line—but for some reason, she wasn’t amused—and turning, quickly exited the store.
Other customers, apparently oblivious to both the sight and smell of what was right before them, continued on with their shopping as though nothing in the world was wrong. In point of fact, they shouldn’t have been there at all—because according to both state law, and county health-department regulations, the entire store (or restaurant, or whatever) should have been closed and locked until such an occurrence was completely and correctly abated. As in, cleaned completely up, and the entire area where the spill occurred, both scrubbed and sanitized. Along with that, all of the product that came either in contact with, or even near contact with biological contaminants should have been discarded.
None of that was about to happen. There was not a single solitary member of middle or upper management that would have been willing to have closed that store, even for an hour or two. Super Giant Stuff Mart (the parent corporation) would have had their heads, and their jobs as well, in a city second, if they had tried. So the employees toiled mightily to get it all cleaned up as quickly as possible before a customer or store employee could call it in to the Health Department on the hotline number.
They needn’t have worried.
You see, the Health Department . . .
Didn’t even have a hotline number.
Please—just take a second and let that sink in—and what that means to your health and safety.
The Health Department, generally of the individual counties of a State, are charged with ensuring public safety—particularly in the area of food safety. They inspect and oversee operations of food retailers in a variety of different venues and settings. Mostly this means retail prepared food outlets of all sizes, and restaurants. They also license food handlers, after a short training program and quiz.
It isn’t very vigorous to say the very least. An individual can pretty much walk into a food handler safety course and get a permit within an hour of two of his time, even if he or she haven’t ever held such a job in their life, and in a lot of cases, even if the applicant can barely speak the language. In an effort to be fair, most food handling safety manuals are written in several different languages, as well as the final quiz.
At least the quiz is closed-book—right?
Well—not always. To save the expense of hiring food safety training experts, facilities, and so forth, many Health Departments have gone to on-line training. Pretty easy to pass. All one has to do is make careful notes during the at home training, and the quiz at the end become very much open-book. In the old-fashioned pre-online classes, at least the applicant’s fifteen minute memory capability was challenged.
The Health Department also inspects businesses that sell food., such as supermarkets. Unless there has been a specific complaint, it is on a random, and supposedly surprise, basis. Maybe—but each and every time we were inspected at Giant Stuff Mart, we were informed by management that they were coming—at least an hour or so in advance.
Perhaps GSM management was psychic. And perhaps it was something else. It happened so often though, I had to wonder. When they did show up for inspections, generally speaking, they were pretty light inspections indeed. They did do a reasonably good job of checking hand-washing stations for soap and paper towels for instance, but absolutely nothing about the serious, institutionalized, and systemic worst food safety practices of both the corporation and the individual store.
Inspections went something like this. As I said, the employees got at least an hour or two warning that they were on the way. By the time the inspector reached the store, the most glaring deficits had been rectified. Three compartment sinks were filled, sanitizing solution was refreshed. Temperature logs were quickly updated, and stem type thermometers, long un-used, were fished out of equipment drawers and laid out where they belonged and could be easily observed by the inspector.
At the meat and seafood counter, old Kenny (not a real name) the Health Department inspector, would enter and carefully don his hairnet, a Department regulation. Then he would place his lap-top computer on the nearest counter-top and begin his “inspection.”
It didn’t last long, and it didn’t cover much, as I indicated. Finding two or three real, and/or potential deficits and problems in the department and carefully logging them into his computer, he would finish up and head off to another department. Kenny was fast—he didn’t like to hang around for too long, usually finishing up with meat and seafood, the deli, the bakery, produce, and the nutrition departments in well under an hour.
Then he would disappear into the Store Director’s office—for probably two more hours. What did they discuss? I don’t have an idea in the world, never having been privy to one of those extended meetings.
But I’m sure it was all about food safety and protecting the public—right?
What else could it have been.
Generally speaking, very low-level food department employees were cited for exceedingly minor infractions, while simply astounding shortcomings in the cold-chain management system for fresh and perishable foods were simply overlooked and/or ignored.
It was a joke in the store that the newness and high price-tag of the Health Department inspector’s automobile was kind of in direct proportion to the number and amount of serious infractions he or she were somehow unable to see.
Again—one had to wonder.
By the time I worked a short while at GSM, I had observed so many food safety issues that I decided to put the Health Department’s hot-line number on my cell-phone speed dial. That’s when I found out that there wasn’t any such thing. I can’t say with certainty that all Health Departments are this way, but in this one large and very wealthy County in the State of Washington, the only way to reach them with an urgent food safety issue was by sending an email. Which I tried—repeatedly, over the years. My response?
If this was a State, and a County that demonstrated much caring about the health and safety of the general public in this manner, I would sure have hated to see one that was un-caring.
Guess what I’m trying to tell you is that you are on your own here. There really isn’t anyone besides yourself to protect you. Certainly not the corporate owners of these large chain-store supermarkets. Certainly not the individual managers of the stores either. And most certainly, not the County Health Departments. At least the one that I had the displeasure of observing for over eight years. Some may be better, and some may be worse—but at best, it is a crapshoot.
It’s my most sincere hope that some of the things I have talked about in this little book have been of benefit to you in doing just that—protecting yourself at the supermarket. Trust me when I tell you, that you are, at the same time—both the first and last line of defense in keeping yourself and your family, well, healthy, and alive.
The follow-up to the sewer blow-out? Well, GSM did finally get all of the water and other stuff up off the floor. What they didn’t do though, was to remove the stagnate and filthy water from under the display cases and produce pallets. There, it was simply left to dry on its own, bacteria ever growing and expanding in the warm and wet environment. And they didn’t ever either wash or sanitize the floor. The very same evening of the day this occurred, I watched as a customer in the produce department accidentally dropped a fresh cabbage. It hit the floor and rolled along for several feet—and directly into and over the un-sanitized spill area. The customer, wanted to do the right thing, simply picked it up and placed it back on the pile it had rolled off of.
Care to take a guess just how many pathogens that cabbage might have picked-up on its roll down the aisle?
Me either—I walked over from the seafood counter, and retrieving the thing—threw it away. A result I’m pretty sure rarely, if ever, happened.
Remember these two things, if nothing else.
Profits over people.
Every. Single. Time.
And you really are on your own.
It’s just about time to go do some grocery shopping, wouldn’t you say? That’s what I’d like you and me to do in the next, final and concluding chapter of this book.
Let’s grab a cart, and take it for a virtual spin around the old grocery store. We’ll pick up a lot of good nutritious, and safe offerings.
And we’ll avoid the bad.
And I’m going to show you just exactly how to do both.
Thanks for reading. Be back in a day or two with the conclusion of DEATH AT THE SUPERMARKET.
Until then . . . Goodnight.
Dumb Joke of the Day: