From the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety:
Shopping is a competitive sport.
Especially for groceries.
People who would think nothing of laying out $200 for a fancy-pants dinner and atmosphere will digitally or electronically clip coupons to save $0.10.
I watch people when I go shopping for food, about every second day, and maybe they watch the creepy guy watching them.
My questions may not be the same as other cooks or parents, but I have a lot.
Should that bagged salad be re-washed? Some bags have labels and instructions, some don’t. What about the salad out in bins that came from pre-washed bags? Should it be re-washed?
Is washing strawberries or cantaloupe going to make them safer?
Where did those frozen berries come from? Am I really supposed to cook them and can’t have them in my yogurt because of a hepatitis A risk?
Are raw sprouts risky?
How long is that deli-meat good for? Is it safer at the counter or pre-packaged?
Should I use a thermometer or is piping hot a sufficient standard for cooking meat and frozen potpies? Can I tell if meat is cooked by using my tender fingertips?
Is that steak or roast beef mechanically tenderized and maybe requires a longer cook time or higher temperature?
Are those frozen chicken thingies made from raw or cooked product? Is it labeled? Is labeling an effective communication mechanism?
These are the questions I have as a food safety type and as a parent who has shopped for five daughters for a long time in multiple countries. It has guided much of our research.
I see lots of things wandering through the grocery store, but I don’t see much information about food safety.
When there is an outbreak, retailers rely on a go-to soundbite: “Food safety is our top priority.”
As a food safety type I sometimes see that, but as a consumer, I don’t.
This sets up a mental incongruity: if food safety is your top priority, shouldn’t you show me?
The other common soundbite is, “We meet all government standards.” This is the Pinto defense – so named for the cars that met government standards but had a tendency to blow up when hit from behind – and is a neon sign to shop elsewhere.
Leaving brand protection to government inspectors or auditors is a bad idea.
For a while I started saying, rather than focus on training, which is never evaluated for effectiveness, change the food safety culture at supermarkets and elsewhere, and here’s how to do that.
But now the phrase, “We have a strong food safety culture,” is routinely rolled out but rarely understood, so I’m going back to my old line: show me what you do to keep people from barfing.
Food safety information needs to be rapid, reliable, relevant and repeated. I don’t see that at grocery stores.
The days of assuming that all food at retail is safe are over. Some farmers, some companies, are better at food safety. And they should be rewarded.
Most of us just want to hang out with our kids and get some decent food – food that won’t make us barf.
Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety who shops, cooks and ferments from his home in Brisbane, Australia.