Worst food safety failures in NSW grocery stores

Rodents, bugs, filth and expired food have caused nearly 300 supermarkets, greengrocers and delis to be slapped with fines over the past six years, data from the New South Wales Food Authority shows.

The IGA Plus Liquor store in East Lindfield is the biggest repeat offender, receiving 11 fines totaling $5,280 for breaching food safety rules since 2009.

Despite being penalised two years ago for displaying food for sale past use-by dates, it committed the offence again. In August, it received three fines for peddling expired feta animal.house.double.secret.probationcheese, quince paste and steak.

An analysis of nearly 600 penalty notices issued to grocery retailers across the state since mid-2008 revealed one in 10 notices related to the selling of expired food.

Others concerned the failure to eradicate bug infestations and stop rodent activity, the failure to display potentially hazardous food under temperature control, filthy premises and grimy equipment, and the mislabelling of products. Most received prior warnings.

An employee at IGA East Lindfield, who refused to be named, said a Ku-ring-gai Council food inspector had fined them on ”very little things that shouldn’t be an offence,” such as running out of paper towels for the staff’s hand basin.

The fines for selling expired food were unfair, he said.

Since 2008, the state’s councils and the NSW Food Authority collected $400,000 in fines from transgressing supermarkets, groceries and delis. Fairfield Council holds the lion’s share at $45,650, followed by Willoughby Council ($29,150) and Blacktown Council ($18,920).

However, the compliance rate for all food businesses in the three council areas hovered between 89 per cent and 93 per cent in the past financial year.

Among the supermarket giants, 14 Coles stores were hit with 17 fines and eight Woolworths stores received 10 fines. The most recent fine was against the Pemulwuy Woolworths, which displayed barbecue chicken pieces outside the safe temperature zone.

Gavin Buckett, a food safety auditor of 12 years and founder of the consultancy firm Gourmet Guardian, said Woolworths and Coles had better training systems, signage with work instructions and systems to prevent recalled items being sold.

He said smaller businesses were more likely to source products from unaudited overseas suppliers without applying rigorous quality checks.

Reusable bags redux: wash them

The reusable-shopping-bags-are-full-of-bacteria stories are uh, being recycled, but at least the alarmist nature has subsided. Barrett Newkirk of the Desert Sun writes that while reusable shopping bags can contain bacteria (except not citing pathogens) that the risk reduction solution is pretty easy – wash them. Newkirk cites the only published microbiological-risks-in-bags study from Williams and colleagues (2011) and interviews co-author Ryan Sinclair. vector_skull_halloween_trick_or_treat_grocery_tote_bag-p1496283172805687032wl6f_325(3)(2)-1

I classify them as pretty dirty things, like the bottom of your shoes,” said Ryan Sinclair of the Loma Linda University School of Public Health. Sinclair recommended that the bags be treated like the dirtiest laundry and washed in hot water with a detergent and disinfectant. He said he puts his own bags in the washer with socks and underwear, and that even the polyurethane bags can be washed five or six times before they start to fall apart.

Putting the bags in the washing machine and dryer about once a week is a good strategy, Sinclair said. Washing with a spray cleaner and cloth isn’t effective, he said, because it tends to miss dirt deep in corners and creases.

A 2011 study from scientists at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found only 3% of shoppers with multi-use bags said they regularly washed them. The same study found bacteria in 99% of bags tested; half carried coliform bacteria while 8% carried E. coli, an indicator of fecal contamination. 

The paper which Sinclair co-authored showed that generic E. coli can be floating around in bags, recoverable in 7 of the 84 bags in the study.

The next question is it likely to be transferred to any ready-to-eat foods, or somehow to food contact surfaces in the home?

Just because the bacteria might be there, doesn’t mean it can contaminate a ready-to-eat food. No one has presented data to support that. In a cross-contamination event there is a dilution effect when it comes to transfer and it needs some sort of matrix to facilitate the transfer. And while reporting coliform in bags sounds scary, the group of bacteria are naturally associated with plant material and are not often thought as major public health risks, or even good indicators of pathogen contamination on food or surfaces.

A separate study published in 2012 traced a norovirus outbreak among a girls’ soccer team from Oregon to a reusable bag stored in a hotel bathroom used by an ill team member.

Back when that paper was published I exchanged emails with the insightful and entertaining Bill Keene (who is missed), one of the folks who investigated that outbreak and coauthor of the paper cited, he confirmed that the type of bag was irrelevant: “This story had nothing to do with disposable bags, reusable bags, or anything similar. It is about how when norovirus-infected people vomit, they shower their surroundings with an invisible fog of viruses—viruses that can later infect people who have contact with those surroundings and their fomites. In this case these were was a reusable bag and its contents—sealed packages of Oreos, Sun Chips, and grapes— but it could just have easily been a disposable plastic bag, a paper bag, a cardboard box, the flush handle on the toilet, the sink, the floor, or the nearby countertops.”

Newkirk states that Sinclair is working on some new work to show pathogen movement throughout a grocery store.

The study, conducted at a central California grocery store in early 2013, involved spraying bags with a bacteria not harmful to humans but transported in a similar way to norovirus, a leading cause of gastrointestinal disease linked to more than 19 million illnesses each year in the United States.

I look forward to seeing the peer-reviewed output. We keep our reusable bags dry; wash them every couple of weeks and use one-use bags for raw meat.

Is food safety suffering because of Australian grocery duopoly?

Food safety is always the top priority of a retailer – when talking to the press. It’s usually different on the ground.

A reader says quality assurance staff at many food providers are being sacrificed for the bottom line, insisted upon by the two primary food retailers in Australia – Coles and Woolworths.

According to The Age (the newspaper in Melbourne) suppliers to Woolworths claim they have been given two weeks to cut their prices by up to 10 per cent or have their goods removed from shelves — with no commitment from the supermarket giant to lower prices to consumers.

The squeeze on suppliers — described by one of them as "the most brutal negotiations… in my three decades in the industry" — is being mounted by Woolworths to help fund its price war with Coles.

The primary beneficiary of this price war appears to be the media, with fancy adverts popping up all over.

Woolworths spokeswoman Claire Kimball said there was no two-week completion cut-off in its negotiations and "nothing unusual happening at the moment … When we put our position to vendors we often ask them to come back to us in two weeks with their response. However it is a negotiation and this often necessitates ongoing discussions."

‘I guess I did eat cantaloupe’ Grocery loyalty cards help trace foodborne illness source

Elizabeth Weise writes in USA Today an outbreak of salmonella in five Eastern states has sickened 42 people so far this year, with two hospitalizations. Dozens more might have been struck down were it not for a strikingly successful new tool used by public health officials to quickly figure out what was making all those people sick: the lowly shopper-loyalty card.

Food safety officials are increasingly finding value in plumbing shoppers’ food buying habits through these loyalty cards when they’re faced with foodborne illness outbreaks across communities and even states that seem to have no obvious links.

"It’s very helpful because it’s very hard for people to remember what they ate a couple of days before, not to mention a couple of weeks ago," says Casey Barton Behravesh, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Supermarket loyalty-card programs were introduced in 1987. By the 1990s, they were widely used. In return for discounts on some items, they allow companies to track shopping habits. For epidemiologists, who study disease outbreaks, they’re a complete record of everything shoppers bought at the store going back for years.

Privacy is a huge concern in using cards to track food-borne illness outbreaks, officials say. All health departments are required to get permission to use them, Hammond says. "This is voluntary: People are not required to consent to having the grocery chain release their shopper-card history," he says.

In the salmonella outbreak among Eastern states, New York state and local health officials noticed an increased number of salmonella cases and started conducting routine interviews.

When they realized that all the patients shopped at Wegmans, a local supermarket chain, it was a "red flag," Behravesh says. Given permission by patients to check their shopper club card data, officials found "a lot of these people were buying bulk Turkish pine nuts," or foods that contained them, Behravesh says.

Other recent cases include:
•An outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that sickened 33 people and led to 15 hospitalizations in five Western states in 2010 was quickly traced to raw milk Gouda cheese produced by Bravo Farms in Traver, Calif., using Costco purchasing data.

•A puzzling outbreak of salmonella Montevideo that sickened 272 people in 44 states in 2009 was finally cracked when health officials examined shopper records from Costco and saw that almost everyone who had gotten sick had purchased salami from Daniele Inc. Testing showed it was not the sausage but the black and red pepper it was coated in that carried the bacteria.

The shopper loyalty cards also can help public health workers when consumers misremember what they ate. "One person swore she didn’t eat cantaloupe, she only ate honeydew melons," says William Keene, a senior epidemiologist with Oregon Public Health Services. "When we pulled her records, we found that she only bought cantaloupe, not honeydew. When we showed her that, she said ‘Oh, I guess I did eat cantaloupe.’ "

Grocery stores across Tampa Bay receive “Poor” food safety rating from state

WTSP – Tampa Bay’s news leader – reports that of the hundreds of grocery stores across the Bay area, seven received failing ratings in the latest round of inspections by the State Division of Food Safety. 

According to Florida state guidelines, a poor rating indicates the grocery store was found to be unsatisfactory in meeting sanitation requirements on the day the inspector entered the store.

Good and fair ratings are considered passing and in compliance with sanitation requirements.

The businesses on the list of failing stores include:

• ALDI at 14933 North Florida Ave., Tampa
• La Fiesta Mexican Convenience Store, 1202 S. 22nd St. Tampa
• Rejax Meat Market, 2327 Dr. MLK Jr. St., St. Pete
• Save-A-Lot, at 8854 State Road 52, Hudson
• Costco, at 10921 Causeway Blvd., Brandon
• Kasa Xpress Market, 7020 Cypress Gardens Blvd., Winter Haven
• El Rancho Mejicano, at 5648 SR 674, Wimauma

Violations that trigger a failing grade vary but usually include conditions that can possibly lead to public illness.

On an Oct. 14 inspection of the Rejax Meat Market, the inspector reported finding evidence of insects and/or rodents, with rodent droppings on a shelf in the back room.

An Oct. 27 inspection of the Kasa Xpress Market, the state reports finding live roaches in the storage cupboard, eggs stored at improper temperature, and no soap at an employee sink.

Reusable bags, bacteria and lack of peer-review

I prefer peer-review before press releases.

And prudence before plastic pushers.

I prefer to bike to the grocery store with my kid in the trailer and dog on the leash – and put the groceries in my knapsack. With daytime highs of 100F, that ain’t happening so much at the moment.

A new report issued today by the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University in California says those reusable grocery bags can be a breeding ground for dangerous foodborne bacteria and pose a serious risk to public health.


Maybe it’s Gotcha microbiology where a bug is found, but the public health significance isn’t matched up with epidemiology (where are the sick people).

Chapman has highlighted the flaws in the paucity of data that is out there, and will be going through this later tonight.

The American Chemistry Council, which underwrote the research project, may be a fine organization – and I’m all for industry sponsoring research – but why not release the results in a peer-reviewed journal?

Riding in carts with meat

Several years ago, a young girl in Ottawa contracted E. coli O157 after licking the moisture off a package of hamburger on a particularly hot day. The risks of having young children near potentially contaminated food in a shopping cart has been well recognized. And now confirmed.

Researchers at CDC and elsewhere report in the current Journal of Food Protection that kids can be exposed to raw meat and poultry products while riding in shopping carts. Parents, pay attention.

Prevalence of, and factors associated with, this risk factor for Salmonella and campylobacter infection in children younger than 3 years***
Journal of Food Protection®, Volume 73, Number 6, pp. 1097-1100(4)
Patrick, Mary E.; Mahon, Barbara E.; Zansky, Shelley M.; Hurd, Sharon3; Scallan, Elaine
Riding in a shopping cart next to raw meat or poultry is a risk factor for Salmonella and Campylobacter infections in infants. To describe the frequency of, and factors associated with, this behavior, we surveyed parents of children aged younger than 3 years in Foodborne Disease Active Surveillance Network sites. We defined exposure as answering yes to one of a series of questions asking if packages of raw meat or poultry were near a child in a shopping cart, or if a child was in the cart basket at the same time as was raw meat or poultry. Among 1,273 respondents, 767 (60%) reported that their children visited a grocery store in the past week and rode in shopping carts. Among these children, 103 (13%) were exposed to raw products. Children who rode in the baskets were more likely to be exposed than were those who rode only in the seats (odds ratio [OR], 17.8; 95% confidence interval [CI], 11.0 to 28.9). In a multivariate model, riding in the basket (OR, 15.5; 95% CI, 9.2 to 26.1), income less than $55,000 (OR, 1.8; 95% CI, 1.0 to 3.1), and Hispanic ethnicity (OR, 2.3; 95% CI, 1.2 to 4.5) were associated with exposure. Our study shows that children can be exposed to raw meat and poultry products while riding in shopping carts. Parents should separate children from raw products and place children in the seats rather than in the baskets of the cart. Retailer use of leak-proof packaging, customer placement of product in a plastic bag and on the rack underneath the cart, use of hand sanitizers and wipes, and consumer education may also be helpful.

Should sell-by dates be thrown out?

The Independent reports that the U.K. Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says British consumers each year throw out 370,000 tonnes of food that has passed its "best before" date, and a further 220,000 tonnes that is close to, but still within, its "use by" date.

Yet last week, Approved Foods, announced that its sales for the final week of December were up a staggering 500 per cent year on year. At sites such as Approved Foods and Bargainfoods.co.uk, you can pick up four tins of pinto beans for £1, or a can of tuna for 59p. Or how about four Toblerones for 99p? There’s nothing wrong with the foods. They’re just coming up to their "use-by" dates or have gone beyond their "best before" dates.

Last year, Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, called on food manufacturers to consign to the dustbin date labels such as "sell by" and "display until", retaining only the crucial "use by" date.

A recent FSA study revealed a rise in the potentially deadly disease listeriosis due to people consuming chilled ready-to-eat foods — products such as pre-packed sandwiches, salads, cooked sliced meats, smoked salmon, soft cheeses and pates — that have been in their fridges too long. The findings highlight the potential risks involved in both our ignorance and our habits of going on gut instinct.