12 Things Supermarkets Aren’t Cleaning As They Should
Watch out for these common things that experts say put the "gross" in "grocery."
Food for thought
As the place where you get your food, you obviously want your local supermarket to be as clean as possible. But most supermarkets are pretty big, busy places, and it can be tough for employees to keep every inch spotless. What’s more, supermarkets see so much traffic from people—people who are potentially carrying germs. “Supermarkets are filled with a diverse community of people, which are bringing different bacteria from their homes, workplaces, cars, and more,” explains Colleen Costello, co-founder and CEO of Vital Vio, a company that produces chemical-free LED lighting to kill bacteria. These people, of course, “are gathered around an area full of food—and not only touching this food, but touching the carts, shelves, and self-checkouts,” she explains. What spots in particular tend to get passed over in the cleaning process—and what can you do to make sure you and your food stay safe? Areas they’re skimping on cleaning are just some of the things grocery stores don’t want you to know.
This bit of news, while unwelcome, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Those cart handles, which you spend most of your grocery trip clutching, don’t get cleaned nearly as often as they should. And it’s not even just the handles. “In my three years at the grocery store, I never once witnessed any employee significantly clean any cart,” says Derek Hales, the Editor-in-Chief of Modern Castle, who spent three years working at a popular Midwestern supermarket. “Our only instructions were to remove any bags, items, or papers left behind. The carts were never cleaned beyond that.” This is good reason to carry some wipes and/or hand sanitizer with you when you go food shopping. “A quick wipe-down of the grocery cart handle, or sanitizing your hands before and after entering the store, could make a difference in whether you pick up these germs or not,” Costello suggests. Here are some more things you should definitely wash your hands immediately after touching.
Checkout conveyor belts
Do you cringe a little when you place your food items on those checkout conveyor belts? Yes, those can be dirty—sometimes visibly. “The main area for bacteria to harbor is certainly around the registers,” Costello says, citing the fact that they’re such high-traffic areas. Think about how many people can be in line at a single checkout lane, just during the time you’re in the store—a fraction of an entire day of customer traffic. “These areas are touched by multiple customers, employees included, and the conveyor belt is filled with germs and bacteria from food and hands,” Costello warns.
The register area
According to Hales, there is a silver lining when it comes to conveyor belts. Since they’re such obvious spots for germs, and sometimes even look dirty, they may actually be cleaned more regularly than some areas that don’t look as obviously unclean. While Hales says that his employer actually did keep the belts pretty clean, “I don’t recall anyone ever cleaning any other portion of the register or bagging area (except perhaps the item scanning base).”
You’d think supermarkets would at least take care to thoroughly clean the places where they keep their food, but, according to celebrity Devin Alexander, this often isn’t the case. Alexander, who shops frequently at grocery stores and prioritizes food safety, finds the lack of maintenance in dairy areas particularly concerning. In late 2018, she remembers repeatedly smelling something funky on milk cartons that she was using long before their expiration dates. After returning to the store she purchased them at and identifying the same smell in the entire dairy section, “I realized…there had clearly been a spill on that section of the milk shelf,” she told Reader’s Digest. “I reported it to the manager a number of times and they said they’d ‘handle it.’ And didn’t.” It was only after Alexander warned them she’d call a health inspector that they finally cleaned the counter. Bottom line? Cleaning of dairy cases may not be as thorough as it should be—they might neglect disinfecting even if there is a spill.
“According to State Food Safety, all food-contact surfaces…should be cleaned at least every four hours while in use. It should also be spot-cleaned as needed during the day and at the end of each day,” says certified food safety professional Katie Heil. The key phrase, of course, is “should be.” Heil reports that results of a 2016 study showed that more than half of the tested meat slicers at delis weren’t being cleaned often enough to meet cleanliness standards. “Contaminated meat slicers are more likely to spread foodborne pathogens,” she warns. Sometimes, though, the most unsavory aspect of a trip to the grocery store can be the other customers—here are the rudest grocery store behaviors that shoppers can’t stand.
You may not expect palatial cleanliness from any public bathroom, but it’s still worth noting that supermarket bathrooms can be germy. When Hales remembers his time working for a supermarket, what stands out to him most about the bathrooms is how inadequate the cleaning supplies were. “The only materials we were supplied with was a basic spray cleaner (unclear what was even in it) and a mop [and] bucket,” he told Reader’s Digest. “Employees [did] the best they could with those materials, but the bathrooms were quite frankly disgusting…even at their most clean.” Of course, this is just one store, but you still might be better off trying to hold off going to the bathroom until you’re home.
It can be easy to forget that cleaning equipment like mops and vacuums are not self-cleaning. Cleaning surfaces with instruments that aren’t clean themselves certainly isn’t boosting cleanliness. On the contrary: “If…squeegees and mops aren’t clean and sanitized, they can spread contamination to everything they touch,” Heil warns. Hopefully the grocery store with the best reputation in America has higher cleaning standards!
Grocery shelves are usually pretty packed, so it’s hard to see anything beyond the very front of the shelves—and the stores don’t want you to! They obviously always want their shelves to be fully stocked. Unfortunately (but maybe unsurprisingly), that can lead to the inner depths of those shelves being less than clean—even though they’re still holding food that people will probably end up buying. Martina D., a former grocery store employee, has an icky first-person account of the unpleasant state of the backs, and bottoms, of grocery shelves. “Unless there is a spill on them, they are not cleaned much,” she told Reader’s Digest. “In one location I worked, we were moving the shelves around to redesign the store. Not only was there various food [residue] under them, but also a huge cockroach!” No, thank you! While this is probably an extreme example, keep in mind that it may have been a while since those shelves have been scrubbed clean.
Think about how many people troop across supermarket floors, coming in from the outdoors in all kinds of weather. Unfortunately, the level of cleaning that those floors get doesn’t always match the amount of foot traffic. And David Serville, CEO of New Zealand–based commercial cleaning company Crewcare, warns that, even if the floors look clean, they might not be. “When the floor is freshly polished, customers would be convinced that it’s genuinely clean,” he says. “But mopping and polishing aren’t all there is to it. What you need to be careful of are the grocery items located right next to the floor: dusty bags of chips, squished juice boxes that can lead to spills (and attract ants!), and unidentifiable products left on the floor for a long time. These are the things you need to pay attention to.” You’ll also find the floors on the list of things hotels aren’t cleaning as well as they should.
You’ve probably heard some cringe-worthy statistics about how many germs are lurking on your cell phone screen. Now imagine what screens that scores of people prod at every day are like—specifically, people who “have been casually picking up and handling produce, packaged meats, money, and shopping carts,” adds Dr. Nidhi Ghildayal, PhD, a Public Health Researcher at the University of Minnesota. So, yeah, opting for the self-checkout to avoid the potential germs lurking by the register area may not be your best option. “In general, screens are not sanitized often enough to keep up with the number of shoppers that pass through,” Dr. Ghildayal says. Luckily, though, this is another potentially germy situation that you can somewhat alleviate by toting wipes with you to add a buffer between you and the germs.
If the back of the shelves aren’t clean, you may not even want to think about what the storage areas in the back of the store look like. Spoiler alert: They’re probably not very clean. As Dr. Ghildayal explains, “these areas are large and dense, with health inspections at certain chains resulting in findings of droppings, cockroaches, and improper temperature settings for food storage.” As if that weren’t bad enough, some chains may try to prevent pests from getting to the food—by dousing these storage areas in pesticides. That’s also bad news for the consumer. So Caleb Backe, a Health & Wellness Expert for Maple Holistics, recommends that after you’ve bought packaged food, especially in a jar or can, you wipe down the container, just to be safe. “You can be sure that they’re not being wiped off at the store,” he says.
This is an instance that’s a little more prominent and visible. “The glass doors in the freezer section are often so covered with dirty fingerprints that you [have] to open the doors just to see what’s inside,” Backe says. While this is, of course, annoying, it can also be unsanitary: “This means that the spread of germs from the door to the item you’re about to pick up is practically inevitable.” He also advises that, if this is not the case and the doors look clean, that’s a pretty good indicator that the rest of the store is above average in terms of cleanliness.