Are Discount Grocery Stores Safe?
An Investigative Report by Lana Dorazio, author of “Save Thousands Grocery Shopping” and owner of www.grocerybook.com
Discount grocery stores have received a bad rap. The news media loves headlines like, “Rotten Meat Sold at Discount Store Sends 12 to the ER!” Or, “Botulism in Canned Goods on the Rise! Beware!” Attention-grabbing headlines make news. Unfortunately, while bad meat might make the front page because of one grocery store’s mistake, what about other discount stores? These stores provide quality, safe, delicious food at a discount price day in and day out!
I’d like to see the headline, “Discount Grocer Saves Consumers Millions!” or “The Dented Can Nominated for FDA Award of Excellence!”
You might think those make-believe headlines are a little over the top, but I don’t believe they are far from the truth. In fact, my investigative reporting bug kicked in this past month, and I decided to settle the issue once and for all regarding the safety of food from discount grocers.
First, let’s establish what I am referring to when I talk about a “discount grocer.” For the purposes of this article and the purposes of my research, I am referring to any store that purchases bulk items from the processing centers where retail grocery stores like Albertson’s, Safeway, or even Super Wal-mart send their damaged products.
These products are sent to processing centers for a variety
of reasons. One problem could be as
disastrous as a crate full of puffy cans, indicating the presence of
botulism. Another problem could be as
minor as incorrect spelling on a label. Products
sent to processing centers are either donated to food banks, or sold at steep
discounts to locally-owned discount grocery stores or chain discount stores like
To answer the question as to whether this food is safe, we
have to first understand that in the
Tina Mata, owner of my favorite discount store “The Dented Can” was gracious enough to talk with me about her store, and the regulations that govern it. Tina is very familiar with food law and the handling of food items, and informed me that her store is inspected every three months by the state health department. If her store were to be found with health or safety violations, she could be shut down just like any other store. As the owner of a discount grocery store, Tina stays current with regulations concerning proper food storage, and instructs her employees on a regular basis as well.
Tina gets her food from a warehouse where other retail stores have sent their “damaged goods.” This can be misleading to consumers, because they might assume that “damaged goods” implies that the food is not edible or is otherwise unsafe. This is simply not true. When Tina buys a case of food, she does a thorough inspection and places only safe items on her shelves.
Dented Cans and Taped Boxes
For example, when it comes to canned goods Tina is an expert. She explained in detail how certain cans are safe when they are dented, and some are not. It’s tricky, but Tina and her staff know the rules and regulations and don’t take any chances.
A can that is dented on the seams in certain ways cannot be sold. The seam of a can is the top and bottom lip, and the seam that runs down the middle. The seams at the top or the bottom can be dented if it is flat but not dented so that the dent protrudes inward towards the center of the can. These areas on a can are more fragile than the rest, and if dented, are more susceptible to a puncture, which might allow air to enter the can. When air enters a can, bacteria can start growing, and this can be very dangerous. Any store should throw away cans dented in dangerous ways.
A can that is dented anywhere else on its body, with the exception of a hole-producing dent, is safe. These cans can be treated just like any other canned item that doesn’t have dents.
Tina also explained how she inspects boxes of cereal. A retail grocery store won’t sell a box of cereal if the cardboard box has a tear or hole. At “The Dented Can,” I have found that cereal is one of the best buys. You can find cereal as cheap as $0.75 per box! The boxes might be banged up and taped together, but the cereal is perfectly safe. How can you know?
Before it is made available for sale, each box of cereal is inspected to ensure that the plastic bag inside of the cardboard box is airtight and not punctured. The outside cardboard box will sometimes need to be torn in order to check the safety of the cereal, so on occasion you will find a taped box. The cereal inside of the airtight bag is perfectly safe to eat.
What about the labels on the food items sold at discount grocers? According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture, “except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not required by federal regulation.” The labels that you find on different products are there to help the consumer, but I have found that more often than not expiration dates are misleading.
What does “old” mean anyway? Some food charts indicate that canned food is good for up to five years! I also found research suggesting that packaged foods can be safe forever from a food-borne illness standpoint, but it just might not taste very good if it is old.
I take the firm stance that while the government can help and does indeed provide laws to govern food safety, as a consumer you are ultimately responsible for what you eat. The laws are good and I’m glad they are there, but believe it or not, the government doesn’t know everything!
When it comes to labeling, you should educate yourself on different types of food and how long they actually are safe. You will find that if you learn this information you can shop at discount stores and buy a sealed jar of mayonnaise that technically is past the “best if purchased by” date for an incredibly cheap price and it will be perfectly tasty and good for consumption. Unless you have legitimate concerns about a particular store, you can be confident that if it were not safe for human consumption, it would not be for sale.
Temperature and Sanitation
Sharon Hoelscher Day of the Arizona County Cooperative Extension is an expert in Food Safety. She explained how inspectors are looking for critical violations in any store they visit. Two of the most important things inspectors look for are temperature violations and sanitation. A good example is how the meat section of a store is breaking down and cleaning their cutting equipment.
Regardless of where you shop,
Grocery Store Inspections
A great resource that I uncovered in my research was a website where I can view all the inspections of any restaurant, or grocery store in my city. Your state should have a similar resource. Simply call the health department, or go to your county’s website and ask for the information. It might take a little research, but it is well worth the effort.
In my state of residence (
Don’t be alarmed by the term “violations”. If the health department were to come in most (if not all) of our own kitchens, we would be cited with violations. Some of the violations mentioned in a report were: “missing ceiling tile,” “using a Styrofoam container as a scoop in dressing,” and “a deli worker preparing a party tray using only one glove.”
I don’t know about you, but I consider my kitchen very clean, and I would probably never use gloves when putting together a party tray or making a sandwich. Take these things into consideration when you are considering whether to shop at a discount store. Check their inspection record and evaluate the cold, hard facts. I checked on my favorite store, “The Dented Can,” and found that they have been inspected and found to be a safe, clean store to buy food.
In conclusion, discount grocery stores are a reliable and safe food source for your family!
Just remember to base your decisions on good information. If the health department confirms in a report that a particular store has a documented record of not storing food properly, you might want to reconsider shopping there. On the other hand, when a well-intentioned friend tells you not to shop at discount stores because she heard a few years ago discount stores were selling bad meat; you might want to take a look at the facts for yourself.
Here are a few additional references to get you started learning more about food safety:
This is a great site that will connect you with any county extension in the
www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseaseinfo/ This site explains different kinds of food borne illnesses and how to look for suspicious foods when shopping.
www.fsis.usda.gov This is the official site for the US Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service
The Dented Can