Calling Ian Betteridge: Are grocery store conveyor belts a significant source of foodborne illness?

I’m sitting at the NoroCORE annual meeting and listening to Aron Hall and others talk about sources of noro illnesses. Stuff like ill food handlers and bare hand contact in full service restaurants rise to the top as risk factors for the most prevalent food-related pathogens. Dirty conveyor belts, not so much.

Tove Danovich of Food Politic interviewed me a couple of weeks ago about issues related to conveyor belts in grocery stores wondering whether they a good source for illnesses?MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

I told her that when it comes to outbreaks and pathogens, I’m not sure the data is there.

If you’re squeamish about the thought of unseen bacterium and pathogens, stop reading. A 2009 study found contamination on 100% of tested grocery store conveyor belts. Though they often seem clean, a lack of dust doesn’t mean they aren’t a breeding ground for bacteria. The question to ask ourselves us is whether these grocery store workhorses have the potential to make us sick.

The study, conducted by Dr. Zhinong Yan, took 100 samples from 42 grocery stores in Michigan. They were tested for “total aerobic bacteria count (TAC), yeast, mold, Staphylococcus aureus (Staph), and coliforms.” Coliforms are a rod-shaped bacteria that are commonly used as bacterial indicators due to their easy cultivation and large presence in fecal matter. If you’ve got coliforms, you’ve got stool (this is not true, the bacteria that make up the coliform group are naturally associated with lots of plants, without poop – ben). Dr. Yan also tested for more dangerous bacteria like MRSA, E. coli, salmonella, and listeria. Luckily, evidence of the most dangerous foodborne pathogens weren’t found.

What was detected, however, were high levels of just about everything else – including coliform bacteria. These belts might not give you stomach flu but probably needed a good round of sanitation. 

Enter the antimicrobial conveyor belt, a cover for your bacteria-covered black belts. Antimicrobial wraps both kill bacteria and are non-porous (read: can actually be cleaned). A somewhat ingenious advertisement from MessageWrap, an antimicrobial surface that can also display ads or other messages, shows that even a child can install it in under an hour.

Yet not everyone is sure that conveyor belts are breeding grounds for dangerous microbes. Benjamin Chapman, Food Safety Specialist, often works with consumers, grocery, and retail stores to curb potential risks. “When we look at conveyor belts, there are two components of risk: what’s the likelihood of pathogens being there and how they could be transferred to food,” he says. While he agrees that conveyor belts are difficult to clean and sanitize, that doesn’t automatically mean they should be a source of worry.

To put it simply, bacteria can be found in any environment – your bathroom, kitchen table, or cooking surfaces at home. Chapman has never found data to prove that conveyor belts are particularly good at transferring pathogens to food. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for the belt to be sanitized if the person in front of you has a package of chicken that’s leaking fluid. “If I see something, I’m going to do what I can do make it safer,” Chapman adds.

As for microbial wraps, they may not even get rid of potential contamination. As Chapman put it, “It’s not a magic bullet.” All conveyor belts have seams that are often particularly hard to sanitize and clean whether it’s a wrap or black PVC. If you’re going to find bacteria, that’s a good place to look.

So unless you’re shopping for groceries in a particularly dingy store, chances are good that you have little to worry about. “If there’s going to be food, there’s going to be bacteria,” Chapman says. We’d be sick forever if the mere presence of bacteria was enough to give us a foodborne illness.

Don’t avoid the grocery store just yet but be mindful of the state of the surfaces where you set your food. As for your mild case of bacterial OCD? Chapman may have put it best, “I’m not in the business of knowing how much people should be concerned about something.”

This last bit was in response to a question Tove asked “how concerned should people be?” My philosophy (stolen from many other smart people in the food safety risk analysis work) is that I want to present the risks and let people make their own risk management decisions. How concerned someone is (whether an individual or a food safety nerd at a food company) is a risk management calculation. It didn’t come out quite right.

Not so sunny findings in the Sunshine State’s grocery stores

South Florida Sun-Sentinel analyzed hundreds of thousands of grocery store inspection reports between 2005 and 2008 and found a 22 per cent increase in food safety violations.

About one in five food retailers failed at least one inspection from 2005 through July 1 of this year, and some failed as many as nine, the reports showed.

Vermin infestations rose 35 percent, with more than one in four stores having signs of rodents or roaches last year…A growing number of markets were cited for the high-risk practices of letting foods get too warm or too cool, employees coming to work sick or not washing their hands, and raw animal products contaminating other food.

John Fruin, chief of grocery inspections at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, explained the increase on a change in inspection format.

"There has been a shift in our inspection philosophy. We’re looking harder for those things that are more apt to cause food-borne disease. And we’re finding more."

The story continues,

No one contends food stores are a major health risk. Cases of consumers getting sick from food sold in grocery stores are rare. The large majority of supermarkets, convenience stores, bakeries, seafood shops and other retailers regulated by the state scored the highest ranking of "good" or passed with "fair" ratings, the reports show.

How anyone can contend that consumers don’t get sick from grocery stores is beyond me. Most cases of foodborne illness go unreported, and if they are reported it may be difficult to track the source back to a food retailer. Whether the increase in food safety violations at grocery stores translates to an increase in foodborne illness cases? Maybe, maybe not. I’m more interested in whether consumers want grocery stores to publicly display inspection scores like food service operations in many districts.

Georgia grocers don’t display grades

I’ve been known to buy the odd slice of pizza or bucket of fried chicken from the ready-to-eat counter of grocery stores, often a result of shopping on an empty stomach. And truthfully, I’ve never thought much about how these food establishments were inspected, perhaps assuming they fell under the local health department’s umbrella, like most restaurants.

 An article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution indicates my assumptions may not always be correct. The story indicates that in the state of Georgia salad bars and ready-to-eat food counters in grocery stores are not inspected the same way as restaurants, nor are they required to publically display their inspection grade like restaurants in this state.

Local health departments inspect restaurants, and the state requires eateries to post the reports prominently on site, using a clear point system and letter grade.

The state Agriculture Department — the same state agency that was responsible for inspecting the peanut plant linked to the nation’s deadly salmonella outbreak — inspects grocery stores. But it doesn’t issue points or grades, and stores don’t have to post their most recent report.

In Georgia restaurants are required to display an “A” “B” “C” or “U” (for unsatisfactory) letter grade and numerical score near the establishment entrance so that patrons can make an informed dining decision. This includes drive-thru windows and other take-out entrances; unfortunately, since grocery store ready-to-eat counters aren’t inspected by the same department as other food establishments, customers won’t see a letter grade at these counters.

Sarah Klein, of the food safety program at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, said of public posting of restaurant grades,

“Once they know that an inspection report is going to be published, there is an incentive created to make food safety a priority. It is something you have to do because, otherwise, your business … will suffer.”

I agree. Restaurant disclosure systems can be an incentive for those within foodservice to increase compliance with regulations, while providing the public with inspection results to make an informed decision. If other Georgia foodservice establishments are required to put the score on their door, why not the fried chicken counter in the grocery store?

When danger lurks in the grocery aisles, call the Recaller

Deciphering recall information is tough for the regular consumer.

Automated phone calls to shoppers have been appreciated. Pictures of products have also helped to clear things up.

But it seems that retailers need some assistance accessing and utilizing recall information to better aide consumers.

Recalled products were found on grocery and convenience store shelves after:
Salmonella bacteria were discovered in Veggie Booty snacks,
botulinum toxin was found in Castleberry’s chili,
Topps meat was recalled due to E. coli contamination,
Listeria monocytogenes was detected in Maple Leaf deli meats, and
dairy products were found to contain melamine.

Growing up, my brother Skyler had an awesome Batman alarm clock. When it was time to get up, the Bat-Signal would shine on the ceiling and a voice would say, “Gotham City is in trouble; call for Batman!” It was a great call to action.

I think the citizens need another hero: The Recaller.

Along with a handful of producers, some grocery retailers have specialized personnel on staff to manage food safety issues.

Barry Parsons
fills that role for the three Stauffers supermarkets in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

When he gets news of a recall, Parsons says,

"Twenty minutes to a half an hour and it’s off the shelf."

POW. BAM. WHAP. The threat is negated.

My bother Jesse (currently a third grader) found a hero in Spiderman.

All the aforementioned recalls have shown that the production and distribution of food today has the power to reach and—positively or adversely—affect many, many people. And you know what Uncle Ben says about great power….

"There’s a lot of responsibility being in the food business," Parsons said. "I really care about this.

"Because it could be a child. I’ve had children myself. Imagine if your child got sick. How would you feel as a parent? The elderly — they’re susceptible. My parents are in their 80s. That really hits me."

That’s what I see as a culture of food safety.

The superhero I favored was a good guy from Kansas: Superman.

(At right: Dean Cain’s costume from ‘Lois and Clark’ was on display alongside old mining equipment and [representative] boxes of stored film reels at the  Kansas Underground Salt Museum when Bret took me last year.)

The Pennsylvania Recaller says of his position,

"You’ve really got to be dedicated to it, and you’ve really got to have a sense of caring.

"You’ve got to say, ‘No matter what’s going to happen, I’m going to make sure my customers are safe, my employers are safe.’

"This is not something I do as a job. It’s just what I do. It’s who I am."