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The 5 Most Alarming Grocery Store Food Poisoning Risks, Warns FDA

Over 70% of supermarkets were out of compliance with one of the major threats.

You may find this as serious news if the grocery store has become one of your most frequent destinations in recent months. This week, the Food and Drug Administration released a report as part of a 10-year study that involves research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In this report, the FDA identified five major risk factors for foodborne illnesses within the supermarket setting as they're caused by food safety practices. Unfortunately, a huge percentage of the supermarkets they surveyed were out of compliance in preventing the biggest risk for food poisoning that customers face at the grocery store.

In the new report, the FDA explains their method of analyzing data that was collected between 2015 and 2016 from supermarket surveillance of 397 grocery store deli departments around the country. They note that 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths occur each year from foodborne illnesses, while 811 illnesses and 38 outbreaks were attributed to problems in grocery store food safety practices during the timeframe this data was collected.

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Food poisoning risks are prevalent, and knowing the red flags can keep you and your family safe. Read on to learn the five food poisoning risk factors the FDA is advising consumers to be on alert for at the grocery store.

Food obtained from unsafe sources


Up front, we should note that the FDA said while food from unsafe sources is one of the five major concerns, poor practices at food sources and distributors—think farms, meat processing plants, and more—haven't led to big problems in the U.S. in recent years. As a result, they left this variable out of the current research.

So it sounds like if you're the kind of person who checks the place of origin on your produce, that certainly doesn't hurt… but you may be glad to hear that recent evidence shows that the places from where our retailers are sourcing our food have proven pretty safe. Still, as recently told Eat This, Not That!, asking store employees where your food came from can be a very wise practice.

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Time and temperature concerns from improper food holding

deli salads

You might have found last week's report on the food poisoning from pasta salad that led to a child's death to be a massive wake-up call. When foods sit too long or they're not kept at an appropriate temperature, even the most seemingly benign dishes can cause very serious illness.

The FDA found that time and temperature was one of "the two most commonly occurring out-of-compliance risk factors" among the grocery stores that were surveyed, with a whopping 70% of those stores not storing some colds foods at proper temperatures, and 53% not holding hot foods at the appropriate heat point. (Those slightly suspect overhead heat lamps may not always be a sure thing, after all.) Within this data point, they included whether deli-prepared foods had been discarded within seven days of preparation. So the marshmallow Jello-O dessert and your favorite store-made rotisserie chicken salad? Yeah—it's OK to ask how long they've been sitting there.

Poor personal hygiene

scrubbing soapy hand against washbasin

Sigh… this was the other major issue. Similar to the rather repulsive McDonald's story that led to reports of a lawsuit this week, the FDA has revealed that 72% of the grocery stores in their study observed employees who were working behind food service counters while not practicing proper hand-washing.

It's what we've been hearing for the past year from medical experts: Good hand-washing practices are one of the most powerful ways to cut down on the spread of infectious diseases. The FDA's research highlights that when grocery store employees don't follow appropriate gloving or hand-washing guidelines, or when they touch ready-to-eat foods with their bare hands, this can spread serious sickness.

Contaminated equipment

Unloading utensils from dishwasher

The FDA held these supermarkets to how well their food was protected from cross-contamination during storage, preparation, and display to find that 43.1% of stores in this study were out of compliance; and how well and how often food contact surfaces are properly cleaned and sanitized (with a 47.9% out-of-compliance rate). It probably makes you hope that even when things get busy, managers are making sure surfaces, equipment, and utensils are being cleaned appropriately.

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Inadequate cooking

ground beef

You might be relieved that in this study, the FDA found that over 95% of supermarkets ensured their raw animal foods were cooked to required temperatures, while over 82% of those stores made sure cooked foods were reheated to required temperatures.

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Krissy Gasbarre
Krissy is a senior news editor at Eat This, Not That!, managing morning and weekend news related to nutrition, wellness, restaurants and groceries (with a focus on beverages), and more. Read more about Krissy