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8 Dark Secrets about Supermarkets -- and why they're really not that dark or secret

There is, and probably always will be, those wannabe exposé pieces about how your city's mayor is trying to kill you, or about how all car manufacturers actually want you to live in outer space. I don't know why they bother me so much when they're about supermarkets, but here goes.

Healthyway recently published an article entitled "8 Dark Secrets Nobody Told You About Food at the Supermarket". Check it out. Are you shocked, disappointed, outraged, and planning to go yell at your local supermarket's manager?

Take a deep breath. Let's look at these claims closely.

1. Big cart, big money.

Sure they do. But they can also provide endless frustration for customers. If a supermarket is cramped to begin with, having oversized (or even normal sized) shopping carts can cause frequent collisions and difficulty navigating the aisles. This leads to angry customers, and an angry customer is probably not a return customer.

Sure shopping carts have increased in size since they were introduced 80 years ago. But in 1938, the average grocery store size was also just 8,000 square feet -- compared to more than 50,000 square feet in 2000 (according to the same source), or a sixfold increase. This, of course, mirrors shopping habits: whereas in 1938, the average grocery-store shopper probably bought dry goods, produce, and meats, supermarket customers today are treated to everything from cold-brew kombucha to medicine to tonight's dinner, already made, to patio furniture. It's only logical that the shopping cart, then, would increase in size.

 ➞ The Market Report's Suggestions
  • Make a shopping list.
  • Choose a cart or basket that reflects the purchase you anticipate making.
  • If you intend to browse, choose a small cart or basket and trade it for a larger one if necessary.

2. Changing dates doesn't just mean swapping romantic partners.

And why shouldn't they, if the products are still viable to sell? Let's make an important distinction here, which Healthyway seems to gloss over: the differences among expiration dates, sell-by dates, and best-by dates.
  • Expiration dates tell a consumer when the product MUST be consumed by.
  • Sell-by dates tell a consumer when the product should leave the store's shelf.
  • Best-by dates tell a consumer when the product should be consumed by.
Only expiration dates are legally enforceable, and only in certain circumstances. Stores can be fined for selling products that may be harmful to consumers, such as meat that has visible mold on it. If meat (or other food products) is still in acceptable condition, and is packaged with a sell-by or best-by date, the date can be changed.

Supermarkets don't typically change dates on anything that's not packaged in-store. Even perishables such as milk or eggs often have dates on them at least a week in advance of their actual expiration, but look for the best date on anything.

 ➞ The Market Report's Suggestions
  • If you're buying fresh foods, be thorough. Does it look right, does it smell right? If so, it's probably fine.
  • If you're concerned about food once you get home from the store, check out these recommendations.
  • Check out your supermarket's return policy. Most stores have a 24-hour limit on perishables, so check your perishables when you get home, not when you're ready to use them. Keep your receipts.
  • If you buy any product you're not satisfied with, return it to the store. Make sure to observe your grocer's return policy. If you follow the stated policy but the store refuses to give you a refund, this is a customer service problem. Contact store management or corporate.

3. Meat glue and...

I hadn't heard about this before. It's fascinating and more than a little creepy! I got nuthin'...

 ➞ The Market Report's Suggestions
  • While you might not be able to tell whether your steak contains a nice side dish of glue, choose a supermarket with a reliable butcher, that cuts its meat in-store. Get to know your butcher, and discuss the cut of meat you want to buy. This will also help you get the freshest meats.
  • If your supermarket does not cut its meat in-store, well then, I think it's about time you find a new supermarket!

4.  ...Fruit paint?

Since there's no taste difference, this doesn't seem to be to be such a big deal. If you like bananas, you buy bananas. It's just another way that the supermarket sells the version of the product that's most appealing to its customers. If customers, for instance, preferred the taste (or price, or whatever) of Cream-O-Land milk instead of Farmland Dairies, and the store only had enough sales volume or space to carry one brand, why in the world would they carry Farmland Dairies?

This section of the article makes no mention of using genetic modification to alter the color. GMOs are a totally different issue, and one that's certainly worth discussing. You can start with this article from the New York Times. For the record, USDA certified organic foods cannot, by law, contain GMOs.

 ➞ The Market Report's Suggestions
  • If you don't like the color of your bananas, complain to the produce manager. He or she will undoubtedly conclude that you have already gone bananas.
  • Buy produce that you need to, not produce that's visually appealing, unless you're sure you'll eat it. Impulse buys in produce frequently end up in the garbage, because of its short shelf life.

5.  Controlling sales by controlling customers' paths

Uh, has the author (an apparently nameless "Healthyway Staff Writer", by the way) ever been to any supermarket in New York City? With their endless dead-ends, perpendicular aisles, and often separate rooms for different departments (!), they pretty much shatter this argument.

OK, I guess you'll probably want more of a response than that. So here's a few specific responses to what the video says.
  • It's true that endcaps are often "rented" to big producers. But in many supermarkets, they're just there to highlight what's on sale that week. It depends on the store, but in some, value shoppers would do well to focus on endcaps.
  • Endcaps can also be rented to smaller producers who want their entire product line in one place, such as La Flor spices or Bob's Red Mill grains. Typically these companies will permanently hold an endcap to ensure that their products don't get lost in with their competitors.
  • As for the claim that endcaps generally change weekly...uh, yes, because they usually feature what's on sale -- they change with the circular.
As for the people who insist that milk and bread are in the back corner of a supermarket to make you walk past everything else to get them: consider where else in a supermarket you'd put them. Here's the way I see it:

  • Milk is a high-volume item, so it needs to be replenished frequently. The easiest way to do this is from behind, so that a stocker doesn't take up space on the sales floor or block customers. That means there not only needs to be access to the back of the case, but also there needs to be enough space for a walk-in refrigerator for storage as well. The perimeter (and typically the back wall) is the only place that fits all these criteria. Notice, for instance, that at many supermarkets milk is on the back wall while the rest of dairy is on the side wall. And it's usually on the far side of the back wall because meat usually comes first, which is typically grouped with other fresh products (produce, seafood, deli). In fact, lower-volume stores sometimes do not stock milk on a perimeter.
  • Bread typically is supplied by outside vendors (i.e. not coming from the same warehouse that the rest of the groceries come from, and often delivered in different trucks), and frequently comes in through a separate door because it goes directly to the shelf. Thus, moving it to a far side of the store causes it to be somewhat separated from the inevitable confusion and time-wasting it would be subject to if it had to go through the main backroom. This way, a vendor can unload his own truck, put his products right on the shelf, and leave without taking up space at the main loading docks or in the storage room.
  ➞ The Market Report's Suggestions
  •  Make a shopping list.
  • Navigate based on the aisle markers. If you can't find something, don't wander, ask someone.
  • Use the weekly circular as a starting point, but compare all prices on the shelf. For instance, although Goya beans may be $0.99/can in the circular, the storebrand may be $0.79/can (but not listed in the circular).
  • Don't shop endcaps unless you were already going to buy the item on them.

6. Cool, clear water on old, soggy produce

Actually, water serves an important purpose on some produce. Here's the deal with some produce (mostly greens) and water. Remember your high-school science classes? Either way, the basics are:
  • Greens can be up to 90% water. If they lose this water, they get sad and droopy.
  • Due to evaporation, greens and other vegetables lose their water over time.
  • To keep greens in top condition, they need to be frequently re-hydrated.
  • In osmosis, a certain substance moves from where there's a high concentration of the substance to a lower-concentration area. So if there's more water outside the leaves (water being sprayed onto the greens), the water will naturally have a tendency to move into the cells of the leaves, which (although they are no longer living) will readily accept the water. This replenishes the naturally-occurring water in the leaves' cells as fast as it is depleted.
  • If more water is added than the vegetables can accept, it will simply run off the produce.

 ➞ The Market Report's Suggestions
  • If your supermarket's produce is old and soggy, no amount of water will bring it back to life. In fact, too much water that doesn't drain properly off of the vegetables will make them go bad quickly.
  • If your supermarket has bad produce, shop at a different supermarket. It's not the water's fault.
  • Store your vegetables in containers that can breathe, and keep them cold. Don't seal your greens in plastic.
  • It's Thanksgiving day and your family is all coming. They expect a fresh, crisp salad, but all you have are wilted greens. If the greens aren't actually spoiled (or moldy), you can revitalize them by placing them in a bowl with ice water for a few minutes. You can even add a small amount of standard white vinegar to the bowl if you like. Your greens will be as good as new -- because they're re-hydrated!

8. Fishing for fish without fishy labels.

Unfortunately, there's not much you can do about that. Seafood isn't very closely regulated by the US government, so other organizations have stepped in to inform the public about seafood sources and hazards. Seafood Watch, a nonprofit, has excellent information on its website about seafoods to buy and to avoid, as well as seafood buying guides.

 ➞ The Market Report's Suggestions
  • Get to know your fishmonger as well. If you're looking for fresh seafood but your supermarket doesn't have a service seafood counter, shop elsewhere.
  • Know generally what to buy from Seafood Watch or a similar organization. Don't be one of those people who asks the seafood clerk a million questions when there's a line, or when it's clear he or she doesn't speak English very well (and you don't speak his or her native language). Or that person who doesn't eat any fish at a restaurant and makes it clear to the server their annoyance that the restaurant isn't certified by a million sustainable-fishing organizations ... you get it.
  • Make sure your supermarket has clear labeling of source (farm/wild) and origin (country). If they don't, ask, and if your fishmonger isn't sure, buy fish elsewhere -- maybe at a specialty market.
  • Local seafood is always best. Unless you live in the NYC area, in which case I don't even want to think about what kind of pollution those poor fish have to deal with. And what kinds of diseases I'm going to get from eating them.

9. Inspecting the role of inspections.

Although people place immense value on supermarket health inspection reports, they're more of a general barometer of how the store is doing on cleanliness. Inspection violations can range from improper food storage, evidence of infestations, and unacceptable dirt and grime in food prep areas to more minor issues such as paper towels being out in the customer bathroom or burnt-out lightbulbs in employee breakrooms. If even one of the very strict health inspection criteria is not met, the store will fail its inspection. Generally speaking, because inspections cover so many aspects of a supermarket's operation, a supermarket can expect to have anywhere from five to 20 violations in an inspection, especially in very large stores. Most of these violations, however, will be extremely minor. If a supermarket regularly fails inspections with critical violations, this is a problem. Critical violations are problems that health inspectors deem important enough that action must be taken on them. Other violations will result in a fine. Stores are re-inspected to check whether they have fixed their critical violations.

 ➞ The Market Report's Suggestions
  • If you care strongly about your supermarket's inspection reports, find out how to get inspection reports (which is public data). This is different in different areas, since it's often covered at a county level.
  • If you find inspection reports, read not only how many violations the store has, but what they are. See if those things matter to you.
  • You typically don't need to read health inspection reports to gauge a store's sanitation. If it feels dirty, then it probably is.

I hope this has given readers a little bit of perspective into this article and similar articles. I don't mean to totally discredit Healthyway -- in fact, the article makes several excellent points -- but I do hope to encourage people to take anything they read with a grain of salt. (And no, I'm not also a high school teacher.)

If you really think your supermarket is tricking you in every aspect of your shopping, ask yourself --

Why am I shopping here?

Find a supermarket that makes you comfortable. And if you need to, ask any questions of management that you may have. If they won't answer you, then it's about time to find a new supermarket.

Thanks for reading, and happy shopping!
- Zachary