Food and Nutrition

From Bulk Bins to Salad Bars to Free Samples, Here’s What Experts Want You To Know About Grocery Store Safety This Summer

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Photo: Stocksy/Painted Wood Serbia

The days of arduously wiping down every last box and can from your grocery haul with Clorox wipes now feels like decades ago, even though it was only last spring experts were advising us to do so to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. Now that grocery shopping feels semi-normal again, however, is it safe to return to all those things we loved pre-pandemic, like going back for seconds at the free sample stations, grabbing lunch from the hot bar buffet, or shopping for dry goods like nuts and grains in the bulk bins? 

The answer: It depends. One big thing to keep in mind is that the virus is mostly airborne, so fomite (meaning objects or materials which are likely to carry infection, such as utensils) are not the majority of transmission for Covid-19, says Eric Feigl-Ding, Sc.D., an epidemiologist, health economist, and senior fellow at Federation of American Scientists. “My bigger worry is mask wearing and the ventilation in the store,” he says, “and of course, the local vaccination rate.” In other words, you should still be exercising caution while grocery shopping, primarily in keeping at a safe social distance from others. “You don’t know if unmasked [shoppers] are anti-mask or vaccinated,” Feigl-Ding adds. 

Read on for more expert advice on how safe grocery store activities are this summer.

How safe are bulk bins, exactly?

First of all, there have always been food safety issues related to shopping bulk bins, because of concerns over hygiene and sanitation, says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy with Consumer Reports who specializes in food safety. These issues were simply brought to the forefront during the early days of the pandemic, when there was focus on contact surfaces as a potential Covid-19 source, he adds. "However, now that the science tells us that Covid may no longer be a concern in using these bulk bins, food safety concerns remain,” Ronholm says.

When you walk up to scoop out some beans or nuts from a bulk bin, you have no way of knowing whether customers have been digging into them with their hands or cross-contaminated what’s inside with any of the serving utensils provided. Ronholm acknowledges that while there are bulk bins with contactless dispensers, even then, there is concern over how long the food has been sitting in those bins, and how often the store cleans them.

Some grocery stores, such as The Fresh Market, have implemented no-touch bulk bins by having a gloved employee fill customers’ orders or pre-packaging many items in plastic containers to avoid customers digging into them with a scoop. Others have closed or eliminated their bulk bin section altogether. Yet others have resumed standard bulk bin procedures used pre-pandemic.

The bottom line on bulk bins is that if you use them, you must weigh the risks to determine whether you feel comfortable using them, says Ronholm. If a store openly shares the steps they’re taking to keep customers safe, including how often they sanitize the containers and utensils, that likely means those bulk bins will pose a lower food safety risk, he adds.

If you are buying from scoop-it-yourself bulk bins, one big thing to watch out for, according to Chris Mentzer, director of operations at Rastelli Market Fresh: Make sure the scoop is stored outside the container. A better option, he adds, is to buy bulk foods that are serviced by employees or from gravity-fed containers, which run no risk of being touched by other customers.

How safe are free samples?

We all miss the free sample days at grocery store—heck, who hasn't made an entire lunch out of a noon run to Costco? While it has been sad to see these disappear over the pandemic, there is optimism among safety experts that we will be seeing samples return.

“Based on my personal observations over the years, stores do a good job of maintaining good hygiene practices at these stations—employees use gloves, they properly wash utensils and, when required, they prepare the food as instructed on the packaging,” says Ronholm. (It goes without saying that if you have food allergies, make sure you’re able to read the label to learn what’s in the product before enjoying a free sample.)

That said, Mentzer says he senses customers are still weary of sampling in stores, especially through passive samples—which is when stores put out containers and letting customers serve themselves. (That’s not happening at all now, from what Mentzer has observed, he says.) One way Rastelli Market Fresh is still satisfying customers is by offering samples in all its departments upon request, and on a one-to-one basis. For example, if you want to try a cheese from the deli counter, a deli employee can slice the sample on the spot. “I honestly believe we are still months away, if not longer, from getting back to passive sampling,” Mentzer adds.

The good news? Costco CFO Richard Galanti announced on an earnings call in May that free samples would be returning to Costco stores in June. (Just be smart about eating them, OK? And don’t touch anything you’re not going to eat yourself.)

How safe are hot bars and salad bars?

The safety when it comes to hot bars, salad bars, and other buffet-style food options in grocery stores is similar to that of bulk bins, says Ronholm . “While consumers may recognize that there is virtually zero risk in getting Covid [from food bars], the pandemic raised awareness of hygiene practices surrounding these and [consumers] may be apprehensive in returning to them,” he adds. 

There are still general health risks that existed pre-pandemic associated with consuming food from hot bars or salad bars. For instance, you have no idea how previous customers or store employees handled the utensils; if various foods have been cross-contaminated each other (a risk for those with food allergies); how often the stores cleans the containers; or how often the food items are replenished, and/or how long they’ve been sitting out. While avoiding touching the serving utensils at food bars, such as through wrapping a napkin around a spoon or tongs before using them, it doesn’t reduce the risk of foodborne illness, says Ronholm.

Today, many grocery stores have returned to selling the same hot bar/salad bar items they used to, but in prepackaged containers—a trend we may see for the foreseeable future. “I can't help but think that many stores will be doing this for a while until things get to a point where consumers are comfortable returning to the traditional food bar format,” Ronholm adds.

How safe is it to put produce directly in your cart?

We all know it’s more eco-friendly to skip the plastic produce bags (or bring your own reusable ones) when shopping loose items like bananas, kale, and peppers. However, pandemic or not, safety experts don’t necessarily recommend this idea of naked produce. “Given the myriad elements that shopping carts are exposed to, I am not a fan of putting produce directly in the cart, even if you wash them when you get home,” says Ronholm.

Feigl-Ding says that if you are going to do this, you need to be cooking the produce with heat or washing it at home under hot water to get rid of germs.

Even with strict sanitation policies in place, grocery stores can’t promise carts are 100 percent disinfected after every use. “From kids standing in the carts to outside contaminants from nature and the air, these things all have an impact on the safety of your food,” says Mentzer. For this reason, “You should make sure that all foods placed in your cart are either wrapped or bagged.” He adds that if you’re concerned about the use of plastic, try asking your local market to get compostable plastic bags.

It also doesn’t hurt to always bring disinfecting wipes with you to use on your cart before you begin shopping—or at minimum, use the wipes provided in store to wipe down your cart again, even if you think it’s been sanitized by employees.

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