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Study: Shoppers Spread Raw Poultry Juices at Store, Home

Shoppers may want to be more mindful of what they touch after handling packages of raw poultry at the grocery store, according to a new study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on consumer safety behavior when shopping for poultry.

Researchers in the study found that few people used either the plastic bags intended to carry raw meat products nor the sanitizing solution intended to mitigate the spread of harmful bacteria when provided by stores.

As a result, customers were repeatedly shown to spread poultry juices — potentially contaminated with pathogens such as Salmonella and Campylobacter — to numerous other objects, including their shopping cart, other food items, and even their children. After customers handled raw chicken or turkey packaged in sealed plastic, researchers were still able to find traces of poultry protein from juices using swab tests, suggesting that any pathogens on the meat would likely hitch a ride in the juices.

Kansas State University professor Dr. Edgar Chambers presented these findings last week at the International Association of Food Protection (IAFP) conference in Indianapolis. The study involved shadowing 96 grocery shoppers in three U.S. cities to monitor how they handled raw poultry both in the market and back at home.

As Chambers explained, the shoppers only knew they were part of a shopping study and weren’t told that the researchers were specifically interested in how they handled poultry. The study took place in grocery chains of various sizes, from large national chains down to local family-owned stores.

The researchers found that, while 85 percent of stores supplied meat bags to customers, fewer than 20 percent of customers used them.

After customers handled poultry, researchers watched to see what else they would touch next, counting the first three objects or places they touched.

Within the first three touches after handling poultry, the study found that consumers had contact with the following:

  • Cart (85 percent)
  • Dry goods (49 percent)
  • Other meat or poultry (33 percent)
  • Refrigerated goods (31 percent)
  • Personal item (grocery list, purse, etc.) or a child (31 percent)
  • Frozen goods (16 percent)
  • Fresh produce (9 percent)

At the checkout counter, baggers or cashiers placed 82 percent of raw poultry products in separate bags, a percentage much higher than Chambers admitted to expecting.

“I was surprised,” he told the audience. “I was actually thrilled by that.”

Researchers also followed shoppers home to see how they treated poultry packages in their kitchens. Once taking the poultry out of the bag, 55 percent of shoppers stuck it directly into the refrigerator or freezer, while others first placed it on another surface:

  • Counter (33 percent)
  • Kitchen table (4 percent)
  • Sink (4 percent)

When storing the poultry, most consumers placed packages directly into the fridge or freezer without keeping them in a bag, as recommended by food safety experts. Here’s how storage practices turned out:

  • Placed directly in fridge without bag (35 percent)
  • Placed directly in freezer without bag (24 percent)
  • Placed in bag in fridge (19 percent)
  • Place in bag in freezer (14 percent)

Finally, throughout the study, researchers would swab anything that came into contact with the poultry packages to see if chicken or turkey proteins transferred from the packages. That included hands, any food items that touched the package in the shopping cart, any surface the package touched at home, the inside of reusable shopping bags, and the outside of the package itself.

“What we learned is that transfer does occur,” Chambers said.

While the researchers did not swab for bacteria such as Salmonella or Campylobacter, Chambers said that the presence of proteins suggests that any harmful bacteria on the package could also make its way to the outside.

Last year, Consumer Reports released a study that found 43 percent of retail raw chicken products contained Campylobacter, while 11 percent contained Salmonella.

As a takeaway, Chambers listed a number of recommendations for both grocery stores and consumers to help minimize the chance of anyone getting sick simply from handling packages of raw poultry:

  • Stores should provide bags and hand sanitizer in the meat department.
  • Customers should be educated on using bags and hand sanitizer when handling packages in the meat department.
  • At home, customers should put meat packages in bags when placing them in the fridge or freezer.
© Food Safety News
  • lylad

    OK, I get it, it’s the shoppers’ fault. They should expect and uncomplainingly accept the fact their food is tainted. Producers should have no responsibility for providing uncontaminated food. Maybe the pharmaceutical companies can develop an expensive drug a person can add to their food to kill all the bugs (good and bad).
    Win/win for all big business that way.

  • Oginikwe

    We should not have to be afraid of our food.

  • Holly S.

    In the store where I used to work and the store I currently shop, they do wash the belts off, with Clorox wipes typically, and usually only when a “wet spot” occurs. But you’re right, they grab, scan and bag the meat, then grab, scan and bag everything else before dealing with the wet spot, unless of course the next customer covers it. I have seen a lady use one of those carry baskets for her meat, which all was wrapped in bags, and that basket she put in her cart, away from other stuff. Then she had another basket with her produce in it. I didn’t see her check out, although I was curious.

  • KatT

    Good points. I always try to avoid those wet spots on the conveyor belt. I put meat and poultry in plastic bags provided by the meat department, but the cashier has to pull down the plastic bag to scan the label, so juices can’t be totally contained at the checkout. Also I position my poultry last in the cart so it’s what the cashier handles last… not that it matters a lot if their hands or station already have meat juices from previous customers, but I feel like at least I’m reducing the immediate cross-contamination! I do wish they’d use the hand sanitizers and disinfect the belt and scanner more often between customers. Would be great to see if there’s any change in consumer behavior (as well as grocery employees) with more blatant signage- that’s a good idea.

  • Barb3000

    I also bag the chicken I buy and lay it in a section of the cart away from any other items I buy such as bread, lettuce or other vegies. I do not put raw chicken in the frig to easy to contaminate everything in there. I put the bagged meat in my freezer until I can either clean the fat off of it to be re-bagged in freezer bags or cook it. I also spray the sink and counter tops with bleach every place the meat has touched, so far I have never had a problem with chicken or beef. Consumers have to understand that all raw meat is contaminated and learn how to do the clean up and what to use.

  • Here’s a trick.

    Take one of the plastic bags you put your lettuce or chicken into.

    Put your hand into it, and then pick up the lettuce or chicken with your now “gloved” hand.

    If you’re ready to buy, turn the bag inside out around the produce or bird.

    You never touch the raw food or raw food package. Not only have you protected your hands, you protect the vegetables if you’re picking them up to decide which ones to buy.

    Yeah, I picked up the idea from picking up dog poo. But it works.

  • MaximumOvertroll

    Ive never seen bags or sanitizer in any meat department. The only place ive seen bags is in the produces department and the only place ive seen sanitzer is at the entrance by the shopping carts.

  • AssHat900

    Maybe they shouldn’t let people into the store then…

  • yogachick

    Reading the comments below makes me so glad I am vegan, and only eat plant-based foods. So much easier! But it is frustrating that we have to worry about cross-contamination from people who insist on eating chicken flesh.