Food inspectors see a lot of gnarly food.
Also referred to as food safety managers and food science technicians, these professionals are tasked with enforcing the Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines across companies to ensure that all matters related to food meet important standards — not just how the fare is made, but also how it’s sourced, packaged, stored, dealt with over time and distributed all over the country. These folks makes it easy for us to buy groceries without having to worry too much about what’s safe.
When you hear about salmonella and E. coli breakouts, for example, it’s because a food safety inspector was able to recognize and isolate the issue, a job that requires different levels of training depending on where in the United States you’re looking to practice.
So if there’s a food at the supermarket that you should avoid, a food safety inspector is the first person you should ask. We reached out and asked them what, exactly, they won’t shop for when they’re at the grocery store.
Unpasteurized (Raw) Milk
Also known as raw milk, unpasteurized milk is milk that has not gone through a heating process as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that kills pathogens, extends shelf life and makes the drink safer for consumption.
As a result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raw milk may boast harmful germs like salmonella, E. coli, listeria, brucella and more.
Interestingly enough, the sale of raw milk is actually illegal in some states. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund offers a pretty nifty state-by-state breakdown. In Alabama and Colorado, for example, the ban on raw milk extends to retail store sales, off-farm sales and on-farm ones. On the other hand, in California, Maine, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, among others, it is permissible to sell raw milk.
That being said, food safety regulators tend to stay away from the drink.
“Although it is possible to purchase raw, unpasteurized milk in some states, I recommend people not consume it,” said professor Kali Kniel, a microbiologist at the University of Delaware who also explained that when a product is actually contaminated with a pathogenic microbe, the food won’t smell or look different for the most part. So a “sniff test” of raw milk won’t indicate whether it would be safe for consumption.
“There are a lot of people who tout [raw] milk as having all these health benefits, but it’s just not worth the risk because there are a lot of pathogenic organisms that are still alive in that milk, especially if it’s coming straight from a processing facility,” said Dr. Bryan Quoc Le, a food chemist and industry consultant based in Washington state.
According to the experts, you shouldn’t necessarily entirely stay away from sprouts (think radish, alfalfa and clover, for example ― not Brussels sprouts), but, given that the food may be a source of harmful bacteria like E. coli and salmonella, it’s important you wash all products thoroughly before eating them. (According to the FDA, “there’s no need to use soap or a produce wash but plain running water is fine.”)
“In order for sprouts to germinate, the seeds cannot be adequately disinfected to kill all the salmonella that could be there, for example,” Kniel explained. “But, in saying this, let’s keep in mind that there are sprouts growers who are doing a great job and pay close attention to cleaning and sanitation.”
Le’s outlook is a bit more cautious. “There seem to be more foodborne issues with sprouts and I think that is because of the desire not to use chemicals because of the type of consumers who like to buy them,” he said. “The probability of contamination is not so high, it’s more of a moderate risk, but I personally would avoid them.”
Alfalfa sprouts, like the ones seen here, can be a source of harmful bacteria like E. coli and salmonella.
“If you’re going to eat pre-cut produce raw, you are dealing with the same amount of microbial risk as you would with sprouts,” Le said. “That’s because I don’t know what the person behind the counter has done while cutting the produce and what practices they implement. Packaged food, by law, has to go through a stringent process but food that has been produced on-site doesn’t necessarily.”
Kniel warns against cut melons in particular as they tend to support quick bacteria growth. Melons are most susceptible to contamination for a variety of reasons: They grow on the ground and can therefore soak and trap infected water throughout its harvesting process. On the ground, they can also come into contact with bacteria from animal feces that share space with them. Finally, the skin of the melon or cantaloupe lends itself to bacteria growth as the pathogens can easily stick to it and, perhaps, penetrate the rind.
That being said, when it comes to produce — pre-cut or whole — both experts suggest washing everything thoroughly prior to ingestion, storing all in the fridge, consuming the fare within a few days of purchase and, perhaps, considering cooking it instead of eating it raw.
Hot Food Bars (With A Caveat)
When it comes to hot food bars at delis, supermarkets and the like, experts tend to look at the conditions of where the prepared food is kept over what is actually being offered.
Rule number one: All food should be maintained at a hot temperature of 135 degrees Fahrenheit or higher or below 41 degrees Ferenheit if being kept cold in order to properly fend off any potential bacterial growth.
“If the heating system is questionable, I would avoid the hot food bar,” Le advised. “But if it is kept above the proper temperature then you are OK eating it because it can’t be contaminated.”
Kniel agrees with that assessment and offers a few more tips to keep in mind while at the hot food bar. “I look to see that the sneeze guard is in place and clean and that tongs are clean and available,” she said. “I want to see that the tongs are being handled carefully by my fellow consumers.”
Kniel also mentions keeping turnover in mind. When visiting a hot food bar during lunch or dinner hours, for example, you can expect the offerings to be replenished pretty often. If considering grabbing some fare during “off hours,” you might want to think about the fact that the “foods may have been sitting there longer and you may be more careful with your choices.”
Other Things To Keep An Eye (And A Nose) Out For
This one should come as no surprise: If you notice packaged food that looks unsafe or smells bad, stay away from it.
“Consumers should look at the integrity of packaged foods to be sure the packages are not compromised in any way,” Kniel said, specifically advising to stay away from dented cans, as well. “In terms of food safety, if a meat or seafood product smells ‘bad’ or too fishy then it may be spoiled and those should be avoided. Also: Check the sell-by dates on the fresh produce packages to help you understand when the quality may start to deteriorate unless you are going to eat it right away. This is good for bagged salads, which actually have a long shelf life.”
Regarding fruits in particular, the expert doesn’t purchase bruised products and, when selecting berries, looks for packages that are free of molds by checking the underside of the container.
Bonus Tip: Wash Your Reusable Shopping Bags
When stocking up pantries and fridges, most shoppers keep safety-related issues in mind while actually selecting foods at the store, but, according to Kniel, the conscientiousness should go further than that.
“One important consideration today is the reusable grocery totes that many people use,” she said matter-of-factly, suggesting that consumers clean and wash the totes after and in-between shopping trips and, perhaps even more importantly, avoid using them for other tasks. “For example, don’t place soccer cleats in a bag one day and then fresh produce in it the next day without appropriate cleaning — or just don’t do that at all.” Cross-contamination is a real thing.