Healthy homes start with shopping


By Katherine Gotthardt, adapted from USDA’s “Food Safety: A Need-to-Know Guide for Throws at Risk”

When the weather gets cooler, it’s easy to put food safety on the back of your head. We no longer worry about leaving potato salad on the picnic table in the heat for too long, and since ice packs don’t thaw as quickly, sandwich meat is less at risk. But no matter what time of year it is, it’s important to remember that health begins with what we eat. And what we eat we usually buy in grocery stores, farmers markets, online or
through other sales outlets. Therefore, when it comes to health, it is important to keep food safety in mind.

Health, Safety and Shopping

To understand grocery shopping best practices, it’s important to understand why food safety is so important to health. The short answer is, when certain pathogenic bacteria, viruses, or parasites (often referred to as pathogens) contaminate food, they can cause foodborne illness. Food poisoning, known as food poisoning, occurs from eating contaminated food. While this may be common knowledge, what is not often?
What is known: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne pathogens cause up to 48 million diseases, 128,000 hospital admissions and 3,000 deaths each year in the United States. Many of those affected are children, older adults, or people with weakened immune systems who may not be able to fight infections normally. Especially if you or a loved one falls into one of these categories, food safety is paramount – and it starts in the shopping cart.

Choosing safe foods

While we often assume that the foods we find in markets are okay, this is not always the case. To make sure that food is healthy and safe, follow these practices when shopping:

  • In the store, read the food labels carefully to make sure the food has not expired. Remember, unless you plan to freeze these foods, they need to be eaten in a timely manner to ensure freshness.
  • Put raw packaged meat, poultry, or seafood in a plastic bag before adding it to the shopping cart to prevent the juices from spilling onto other foods and contaminating them. (If the meat counter doesn’t have plastic bags, get some from the product department before choosing meat, poultry, and seafood.)
  • Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria without removing nutrients. Therefore, choose pasteurized milk, cheese and other dairy products from the refrigerator section. When buying fruit juice from the refrigerated section of the store, make sure that the juice label says it is pasteurized.
  • Buy eggs in shell from the refrigerated section of the store. Remember, when you are at home, you must keep the eggs in their original packaging in the main part of your refrigerator.
  • Never buy food that is on display in unsafe or unclean conditions. For example, if the refrigerator is dirty or appears broken, the food may be unsafe.
  • If you buy canned food, be sure to check it out. Make sure they are free of dents, cracks, and / or domed lids. Also check the lids for heavy soiling and stains. You need to clean the lid at home before opening the jar, and if you can’t clean it, consider a different jar.
  • Buy products that are not squashed or damaged. Damaged products can spoil faster.
    The general rule of thumb is, if you suspect food is old, contaminated, or unsafe, take your gut first and don’t buy it.

A note on hold times

Reading labels is a critical part of shopping with food safety in mind. But data on food labels is a good guide and not, strictly speaking, an official health guide. Therefore, if you are at home, it is best to stick to the recommended storage times. However, that requires good planning. How can you know hold times and plan meals accordingly, especially in the middle of the grocery store? There is an app for that! Developed by
of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service with Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute, the FoodKeeper app can help you understand differences in label data, warehouse safety, and more. More information about the app, including the download area, can be found at

Remember, your health and the health of your loved ones depends on what you bring to the checkout. Shop safely, stay healthy.

Social Media Director for Prince William life, Katherine Gotthardt ([email protected]) is an award-winning writer, poet, and author, and president of Write by the Rails, the Prince William Chapter of the Virginia Writers Club. Learn more about her work at

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