SALT LAKE CITY-- The junk-food aisle isn’t the only health danger lurking in a supermarket. From the meat department and produce section to the checkout stand, many places in even the cleanest, best-maintained grocery stores are rife with things that could make people sick. Here, experts discuss the biggest health hazards and ways to be protected.
Many supermarkets mist their fresh produce using timers set to spray fruits and vegetables at regular intervals. This re-crisps leafy greens and adds visual appeal for shoppers. The problem is, misting machines using reservoir tanks can breed bacteria called Legionella pneumophila, which causes Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia.
In 1990, an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in Bogalusa, LA; linked to a supermarket misting machine resulted in 34 confirmed cases of the disease and two deaths.“It’s not a problem unless you inhale the droplets,” said Connie Morbach, a microbiologist for Sanit-Air Inc., a Michigan-based mold testing company.
“Doing so may lead to an upper respiratory infection but can be most dangerous if you have a compromised immune system.” Morbach recommends steering clear of the sprayers when they’re in operation.
If people find themselves sneezing and wheezing their way down the cleaning-products aisle of the grocery store, they may have a chemical sensitivity to the gases given off by these products, said Dr. James Sublett, vice-president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and chairman of the Indoor Environment Committee.
“People who react this way to strong fragrances and do not exhibit an actual immune-system response have what’s called ‘nonallergic rhinitis.’ In such a case, the upper airways and nose are affected but not the lungs.”
People who experience a full-blown asthma attack from simply walking down the cleaning-products aisle should check with their physician to get their condition under better control, Sublett said.
Placing fresh produce on the checkout belt encourages germs to have a field day. Packages of poultry, ground meat, fresh fish and even filet mignon and sushi-grade tuna have one thing in common, said Michael Schmidt, a microbiologist at the Medical University of South Carolina: “They are loaded with nutrients that will feed the resident germs on the grocery belt, which latch on to your fresh produce.”
E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus and even Clostridium perfringens, responsible for chicken-gravy food poisoning might be found. Stay safe by always placing produce in a plastic bag and never directly on the belt and be sure to wash all fresh produce under running water before eating it.
When people hear about outbreaks of food poisoning from meat, ground meats are almost always to blame. There’s a good reason for that, Schmidt said. “Pre-packaged, ground meats are typically analyzed by lots for bacterial contamination. A pound of ground meat is actually the product of many animals, and the butchering process is not sterile.”
Germs can be introduced at any point in the processing chain. Whether or not the meat is ground in-house at a local grocer, shoppers still have the issue of many animals within the pound of meat. Good butchers dismantle and clean the grinder before grinding another type of meat, Schmidt said. “However, shortcuts happen.” As long as the product has been kept at the proper, cold temperature, shoppers are generally assured a safe product, if they cook the meat properly.
Cash register receipts
Even if people manage to dodge the misters and the germs on the checkout belt, they’re not necessarily in the clear. The ink on a receipt may be the worst enemy. The plastic component, Bisphenol A (BPA), made with synthetic estrogen, has been in headlines lately for its link to some cancers, asthma, cardiovascular disorders and other serious health issues.
Food packaging typically contains BPA, but most shoppers are unaware it’s also used in cash register receipts. The Environmental Working Group, an environmental health research and advocacy organization, found BPA in two-fifths of the paper receipts they had tested by a major laboratory.
Reduce the exposure by minimizing receipts whenever possible and opt for email receipts. Never give a child a receipt to play with. Avoid using alcohol-based sanitizer after handling receipts. A 2010 study published in the journal Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry shows it can increase absorption of the chemical. Wash hands with soap before preparing food after handling a receipt.
Cloth grocery bags
Cloth grocery bags may be more environmentally friendly, but they’re not health-friendly unless shoppers wash them regularly. The fabric can trap germs such as salmonella and E. coli from foods, transfer them to other foods and make people sick.
Even milk, although it’s pasteurized, creates food for bacteria to grow, said Kevin Morano, an associate professor in the department of microbiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston Medical School. “If the bag gets warm and wet, it creates a fungal incubator.”
Morano recommends washing cloth grocery bags every couple of uses or immediately if food leaked. Wash bags in a clothes washer and be sure to dry the bag thoroughly before using or storing them in a cool, dry place, not in a car’s trunk, which causes bacteria to grow. In addition, use separate cloth bags for meats, fresh fruits and vegetables and ready-to-eat foods, and do not use the same reusable bags to carry other items such as baby toys, bottles and gym clothes.
Before swiping a credit or debit card at the checkout, consider all the people who previously used that same pad. As with elevator buttons and ATM keys, cold and flu germs can be passed along through inanimate objects, called “fomites,” as they relate to their germ-carrying capabilities.
“Supermarkets are actually far worse than ATM machines and elevator buttons, because you’re handling a wide variety of potential pathogens, from fruits and vegetables to meats,” said Philip M. Tierno Jr., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at the New York University Langone Medical Center and author of “The Secret Life of Germs.”
Fortunately, it’s easy enough to be protected: Wash hands thoroughly as soon as possible and avoid touching the face in the meantime, Tierno said.
Kid-size grocery carts
Child-size grocery carts allow kids to shop with mom or dad, but the germs found on these cute mini carts are no different from that found on toys they encounter at a day school, mostly staph and strep, Schmidt said.
“Children are thought to be walking and talking repositories full of germs,” he said. Day-care workers teach children to wash their hands before eating and teachers and staff are usually good at keeping food and toys separate so that the germs are not consumed with the foods, Schmidt said.
“To protect your child from picking up germs, do the same at the store. Even when they are clamoring for that free cookie, wash before eating or use hand sanitizer,” he said.
Eggshells crack easily when the cartons are stacked on grocery store shelves. Even small cracks can harbor some nasty germs. “When the shell cracks, germs can invade, but they are generally inhibited by one of the proteins common to the white of the egg: lysozyme,” Schmidt said.
“However, cracked eggs spoil when the germs tunnel their way past the white and that protective lysozyme. When they reach the yolk, they feast, resulting in a rotten egg and that nasty smell.” So before buying eggs, check that all of the shells are intact and none is leaking.
Hygiene is a must when handling eggs, Schmidt said. At home, wash hands, utensils, equipment and work areas with hot, soapy water before and after contact with eggs.