Food Safety at the Supermarket

Unless you grow all of your own food, you’re probably a regular at the neighborhood supermarket. I appreciate that many supermarkets are taking strategic steps to ensure the freshness and safe handling of foods and making food safety a priority. For example, I’m a big fan of those disinfecting wipes provided at the entrances to most supermarkets.

By wiping down shopping cart handles and baby seats, (and I take an extra one to clean my own hands), I can help avoid cross-contaminating my groceries with pathogens introduced by previous shoppers. Another example is the availability of plastic bags in the meat and seafood departments for double-bagging those sometimes leaky packages.

An article I spotted in a recent AARP Bulletin offers handy advice on grocery shopping with food safety in supermarkets in mind. The tips below, organized by supermarket section, are based on that article.


When choosing items in… Stay alert… Because…

Produce Department

Avoid bruised produce Not only do they look unappealing, but bruised fruits and veggies give bacteria easy access to the inner flesh
Avoid produce that has attracted fruit flies Fruit flies signal that food is leaking, breaking down, wilting or moldy
If you want to purchase cut produce, be sure it is refrigerated or on ice Chilled cut produce is less likely to harbor bacteria than cut produce at room temperature
If you must lick fingers to retrieve a plastic bag, only lick the fingers of one hand; use the other hand to handle the produce Saliva from shoppers is transferred to produce when shoppers lick their fingers to release and open a plastic produce bag
A note about organic produce: Organic fruits and veggies may be free of pesticides and synthetic fertilizer, but they are no safer from microbes than traditionally grown produce, so stay alert, as cautioned above.


Deli servers should never touch cold cuts with bare hands; they should change gloves between serving customers and every time they serve food with a hand that touched door handles, equipment or other surfaces Hands transfer pathogens from one surface to another
Deli servers should not wear dirty aprons; they should clean their hands with a towel stored in sanitizer Dirty aprons can signal that the server is cleaning his/her hands on their apron; contaminants on aprons can build up and spread to other surfaces

Meat/Seafood Departments

Use plastic bags to double-bag meat and seafood purchases; pick up the product using the bag as a glove on your hand and then pull the bag over the package to avoid hand contact with the package Double-bagging meat and seafood purchases helps prevent cross-contaminating your other groceries
Meat packages that are stacked higher than the “load limit line” (see this line marked within cabinet walls) of refrigeration cases may not be cold enough Higher than recommended temperatures (40 degrees F for meat) in refrigeration cases can accelerate food spoilage
Fish and seafood should not smell of ammonia An ammonia odor indicates fish and seafood are starting to decay
Fish and seafood should be kept refrigerated, on ice, or both; if kept only on ice, fish and seafood should be buried in ice, not simply placed on top of ice Fish and seafood are highly perishable
Raw and cooked foods should not be in contact Physical contact between raw and cooked foods can contaminate cooked foods

Salad Bar

Salad bar should not look messy A messy salad bar suggests no one is stocking and cleaning it
Salad greens should not be wilted Wilted greens could indicate the wrong temperature or too long a period at the salad bar, conditions that invite bacterial contamination
Fresh food should not be dumped on top of older food This could invite bacterial contamination; if food levels are low, containers should be removed and replaced with freshly filled containers
Utensil handles should not touch food Utensil handles should be long enough that they are not in contact with food; utensils with handles that are too short can spread pathogens from customers’ hands to food
Salad dressing containers should be labeled Unlabeled containers invite sampling with fingers, which can spread pathogens

General – Packaged Groceries

Expiration dates should be future dates Consuming foods beyond their expiration date could put consumers at risk for foodborne illness
Cans should be free of denting, bloating, rust and leaks These could be signs of botulism, a potentially deadly foodborne illness
Cereal, rice and other dry food packaging should be free of water stains, rips and tears Water stains may indicate the product became wet and moldy; rips and tears in packaging may indicate a pest has gotten into the food

Frozen Foods

Frozen food packaging should be intact, not torn or broken Torn or broken packaging may indicate a pest has gotten into the food or that food has become exposed to other types of contamination
Foods should be frozen, not thawed Freezer compartment foods should be held at zero degrees or lower


It pays to know what to look for when it comes to food safety practices. Stay alert at the supermarket and stay safe!


Linda F. Golodner is President Emeritus of the National Consumers League and Vice Chair of the Water Quality & Health Council.

Click here to download this article.