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Grocery Shopping with Food Safety in Mind


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food-borne illnesses cause about 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,200 deaths each year across the US. Congress introduced legislation last year, called HR 875 (S510 in the Senate) Food Safety Modernization Act to establish a Food Safety Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services to protect the public from preventable contaminants that cause food-borne illness, however the bill has been delayed because of the recent healthcare reform law and, most recently, consideration of financial regulatory reform.

But you can still take steps on your own to help decrease the risk of developing a food-borne illness with some simple guidelines offered by foodsafety.gov, an initiative of the CDC, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the US Department of Agriculture, and the US Food and Drug Administration (USDA).

1. Check the store for cleanliness. It’s not always the obvious, like dirt in the floor or fruit flies around the produce, but definitely look around and let your eyes and ears offer reassurance that the store is doing its basic cleaning each day. Watch the butcher or the seafood handler. Are they practicing safe food techniques – wearing gloves and hairnets, cutting food on clean boards, washing hands, etc? If you have time, check your local health inspector report for the most recent inspection score.

2. Start in the middle aisles, purchasing boxed, canned, and shelf-stable foods first. When buying canned products, do not buy those that have dents or bulges. This can be a sign that the food is contaminated. Look over all packaged foods. Any that is torn, damaged, or has a seal that appears tampered with – put it back.

3. Next shop for produce, as these need to be properly handled, but can be at room temperature a little longer than dairy, meats, or frozen foods. Bag each fruit or vegetable separately (but remember to recycle the bags later!) so that each food is protected from cross contamination.

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4. Buy meat and seafood products, but grab a couple of those extra bags from the produce section to wrap around the meats to add an extra layer of protection until you get the food home. Remember to always keep raw and prepared foods separated. For example, do not put raw steak that may be inadequately wrapped next to your salad greens.

5. Lastly, shop for cold dairy foods and frozen foods. Again, look over the packages to ensure that there isn’t damage. Avoid frozen foods that are above the frost line in the store’s freezer – they may not be adequately cooled. If the package is clear, look for signs of ice crystals which indicate that the food has thawed and been refrozen either during transport or in storage.

6. Check out and get the food home as soon as you can. Don’t stop off for other errands with food in the car, as harmful bacteria continue to multiply as food reaches the “danger zone” between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. It might be a good idea to keep hot/cold thermal bags in the car or a cooler in the passenger section (not in the trunk) for maintaining temperature if you have to drive a long distance home.

7. At home, put food away immediately – don’t set that steak on the counter to cook later. Maintain separation of raw and cooked foods to prevent contamination and possible food-borne illness.

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Want to teach your kids about food safety? The USDA FSIS has a printable activity book that is educational and entertaining. The Be Food Safe Activity Book contains word searches, crossword puzzles, word scrambles, and mazes focusing on different food safety principles. An excellent way to keep the kids occupied while you unload the groceries!