Cross-contamination at checkout

Katie and I were craving hamburgers this weekend and Doug decided to indulge us. At the supermarket on Saturday he picked up some ground beef along with our normal cart full of produce and other proteins. As usual, I tried to separate the items in the cart so that the fresh produce was not touching the beef, pork, or salmon filets, even though all the meat was wrapped.

Checkout on Saturdays is always busy, and with a baby, a shopper’s plus card, a payment method, eco-friendly shopping bags, and chatter with the cashiers and baggers, there are plenty of distractions. On this particular day, the new store manager was bagging our items and complementing Doug on his culinary ability: “I can see you must be a good cook because those items require skill.” I chimed in with full-hearted agreement. Doug’s an awesome cook.

In the meantime, as the hamburger was being passed over the scale and scanner, juice poured out all over the place. I watched the cashier and was about to say something, but she pulled out a sanitary wipe and cleaned her hands. She then proceeded to pass every one of our produce items over the scale and through the hamburger juice. I felt like I should say something but wanted Doug to be the bad ass. And as I stood there stunned, not wanting the store manager to fire the woman, she completed our transaction and was on to the next person.

As soon as we exited the store, I declared we would have to wash every piece of produce in the bags. It didn’t even occur to me until later that the following person’s items were also going to pass over that potentially E.coli-laden scale. And maybe the same thing had already happened five times before we arrived. Maybe we were already at risk before our hamburger leaked all over.

It’s important to wash fresh fruits and vegetables to remove external contamination, because you never know where it’s been. Once your produce is exposed, it can contaminate other items in your bag or at home. Even if you are a careful consumer, it’s difficult to know just where that tomato has been.

(P.S. Doug cooked the burgers to a perfect 160F and they were delicious.)


Washing (and drying) your hands and grocery cart handles

Marcia Patrick, director of infection prevention and control for a health system in the state of Washington (and a spokeswoman for the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology), pointed out in the Washington Post this month,

"All the different things we touch in the regular course of our day can contain germs,” including grocery cart handles.

I tend to refer them as “pathogens,” but I agree: they’re everywhere. As such, I was quite excited to have my first experience with grocery cart wipes.

I, an avid user of lemon-scented disinfecting kitchen wipes, noticed a little stand in my local grocery store about a year ago that held a container of sanitizing wipes to use on the handle of the cart after the cart’s previous user (or user’s child) was done sneezing/coughing/drooling/chewing on it.

That container was empty for my entire senior year of college.

But last night, while shopping in a new location, I spotted another stand—this one complete with pre-moistened wipes! (That’s my husband, at right, wiping the cart handle.)

And they were certainly moist; I spent the rest of my shopping experience getting disinfecting juice on my grocery list.

Perhaps one wipe is intended to sanitize an entire cart, rather than just the handle…

Washing your hands is extremely important to avoid getting sick. Drying is an essential aspect.

Pathogens stick better to wet hands (and grocery cart handles). Drying them after washing will significantly reduce what you may pick up.

Paper towels are the ideal tools, as all handwashing agents are more effective when a paper towel is used for drying. (See Doug’s quote in a USA Today article that ran yesterday.)

Blow dryers are just disgusting. They collect pathogens that may have been aerosolized when the toilet was flushed and blows them onto your hands. (Yet another instance where ecological friendliness does not equate to microbiological safety.)

E-mail me for the refs, if you’d like. And don’t eat poop, people: Dry your freshly-washed hands and grocery carts.