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Finger-lickin' bad: Cleanliness at salad bars, food stores, and processing plants
Click to visit VeggieCooking.com This is more of a rambling opinion than a food tip, but with a purpose. Last year, I was at the Whole Foods Market in Madison, Wisconsin. They had a tray of good-quality pretzels with a special health food dip (something like a hummus or peanut butter) sitting in one of their aisles. They frequently have food samples throughout the store -- a nice touch. Just before I walked up to try some, I saw a young couple standing over the tray. The woman sampled the dip, licked her fingers, and then continued to sample the tray. Unfortunately, she did this so much that her saliva probably contaminated most areas of the tray, so I was out of luck. Then it occurred to me that most food sample trays are probably contaminated by people who lick their fingers or don't like to wash their hands much.

Just a week or two ago, I saw the same thing at a 7-11 when I stopped to get coffee. A man was licking his fingers, picking up doughnuts, then putting them back into the case -- several times in a row before leaving the store. I guess he liked the sugary coating on some of the doughnuts, but didn't want to pay for a pastry himself. I told the man behind the counter what happened, but he didn't take any action to pull the doughnuts, just wanted my money for the coffee. I haven't returned. Their coffee area cleanliness was questionable enough.

Some states (like Wisconsin) have salad bar laws where a clean plate is required every time a customer returns to an all-you-can-eat bar. This law has been in effect at least since the 1980s, when fellow college students speculated it was due to legislators in Madison probably witnessing people changing their mind and putting food back onto a salad bar from a used plate. Who wants to follow someone like that at a salad bar?

Several months ago, I was at an upscale vegetarian restaurant having lunch, and my waitress decided to rub her hands together over my veggie chili just after serving it. I described this to one of my co-workers, and he'd tease me every so often by vigorously rubbing his hands together and laughing. I haven't been back to that restaurant since, although the food is famously good (other than whatever falls into the chili). And just a couple of months ago, one of my favorite waitresses coughed over my eggplant parmesan (no cheese of course) before giving it to me. I haven't returned to that restaurant either, despite its good-quality salad bar with romaine lettuce and deli olives. Yet again, when ordering pizza a few weeks ago, an obviously sick restaurant worker coughed all over my pizza before handing it over. I haven't returned to the pizza parlor either, despite their gourmet vegetarian pizza selection. And I haven't returned to my favorite Chinese restaurant since their service problems were enhanced by extreme cleanliness issues on my last visit, both in the dining room and restroom.

Aside from chemicals used to preserve, color, and flavor foods in food outlets these days (among them MSG, used in most restaurants -- not just Chinese), starchy and fatty menus often made from the cheapest and least nutritious ingredients, cooking oil loaded with trans fats, and other obvious health issues, there's an obvious health issue of dependence on others for food cleanliness. This applies to self-service as well as full-service food outlets.

Last summer, I also had the opportunity to work briefly at the Godiva Chocolates factory in Pennsylvania. It was only a temp job for extra cash while looking for work in the super-bad Bush recession. After my 2002 auto accident, I really wasn't physically capable of handling their type of work, especially since they insisted on giving me the harder tasks which involved constant standing, but I told friends that I'd just stay there as long as I could handle it, then leave. Going to work every day was like going to an amusement park or something. I was seeing how Godiva chocolates were made, and was given the opportunity to participate in the process. Plus the smell was wonderful. I didn't even want any chocolate while working there. The smell was enough.

But Godiva gave me quite an education on the food industry. First of all, the factory is very clean. Compared to foreign factories where much of our food is now processed (often thanks to Wal-Mart), Godiva is no doubt a comparative castle. I've found foreign objects (plastic trash) in food packaged overseas. But while Godiva was obsessed with no hair poking out from behind hair nets, half of the sinks for workers to wash their hands as they walked into the packing area weren't in service. I never saw everyone who went to work packing chocolate wash their hands -- pretty much just the new temps were careful about it, like me. Well, one of our training videos said to report such matters to our supervisor, so I did. "Oh, those sinks are always out of order," the short little old lady told me -- the same supervisor who kept putting me on the physically hard, stand-up jobs instead of the sit-down jobs that the younger, stronger kids were getting. "Maintenance doesn't have time to get to things like that." OK, I guess there were a couple of sinks left, for the factory full of workers to wash their hands in.

Then they'd run the conveyor belts as fast as they possibly could -- to the edge of what their workers could handle. So people who had to cough or sneeze barely had time to turn their heads, much less get up and wash their hands afterwards. Going to the bathroom was hard enough -- they had to call for service and then wait for someone to become available to relieve them. I saw several people who refused to wear the rubber sanitary gloves, and a supervisor who sampled a chocolate, wiped her mouth on her gloved hand, and then went on packing chocolates with the same glove. Yummy. I guess that's what makes their chocolates worth so much more money than anyone else's.

Just recently, management of the IT Department where I work now decided to buy us all a big box of Godiva chocolates because several people (myself not included) had to work until 1 a.m. doing a software update roll-out. I shared mine with several co-workers, explaining to the department's chocolate-lover (one of the 1 a.m. guys) why I don't buy Godiva chocolates anymore. I still ate a few though. They do taste pretty good, so I decided to forget what I saw temporarily. My co-worker was more impressed with the fact that I'd worked at Godiva than anything else, and had me describe it to several other techies. He didn't mind sampling my chocolate even so, and I was glad to have it taken off of my hands.

I'm sure these incidents were mild in comparison to the overall food industry, and I've heard worse stories from others. The fast food industry seems particularly bad.

What Godiva, restaurants, and food stores have taught me is the additional value of preparing food at home. Cooking at homes offers complete control over ingredients. You can use whole wheat instead of bleached flour, extra-virgin olive oil instead of peanut oil used for deep-frying all day long, sauteed or steamed vegetables instead of deep-fried, etc. It ensures that artificial chemicals including MSG aren't used, that the quality of food is good, perhaps organic. AND you know whether or not your hands were washed before working in the kitchen (other than the farm workers' hands, whose contribution to your food would be included in food processing plants' and restaurants' products anyway). You can also prevent people from coughing or sneezing on the food, be sure that the dishes and utensils used were clean, that there weren't any insects running around, and so forth.

In other words, cooking at home is ideal. It's the only way to ensure clean and healthy food, and is usually less expensive than eating from boxes or restaurants. Prepared food can save time and labor, but it shouldn't become a way of life.

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[Original page posted 3 March 2005]
© 2005 by Pam Rotella

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