This girl alone is responsible for two elderly deaths, one ruined honeymoon, and 35 cases of pinkeye.
As we are fond of pointing out, the only thing that surpasses mankind's loving relationship with food is the food industry's willingness to abuse said relationship at every opportunity. Your grocery store is no different -- every time you visit that behemoth food chain, you're stepping into a confusing fluorescent-lit maze of lies. And by lies, we mean dead rats.
See, when you get sick after eating at a restaurant, you probably tell everyone you know -- restaurants get a bad reputation in a hurry. But if something from your kitchen makes you sick, would you ever think to blame the grocery store?
You should. Because if you peek behind the scenes, you will find that ...
You know those hobos who cart their entire material fortune with them in a battered, filthy shopping cart, only for it to be demolished in a chase scene from an '80s buddy cop movie? Those carts, while filthy, are probably cleaner than the one you just loaded your week's worth of TV dinners into. That's because there is a better than good chance that the shopping cart you grabbed when you embarked upon your grocery quest is stained with poop. A 72 percent chance, according to research. There's also a 50-50 chance that the cart you grab comes with a special side order of E. coli.
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Are the night janitors getting drunk on the job and mistaking the shopping carts for toilets? Actually, this, like so many other hazardous shopping experiences, is because of children. They have a habit of sticking their hands everywhere, and as such they tend to carry trace amounts of fecal matter -- among other things -- about their person at all times. Imagine that poop-encrusted toddler sitting in your shopping cart before you got hold of it, just smearing his hands on everything, as kids are wont to do. Now imagine 10,000 kids in the cart, pulling a nonstop poop-smearing orgy, and you get a basic idea of the public toilet that you're using to store your fresh produce.
Because guess what -- that cart hasn't been cleaned in a while, if ever. Think about it: When's the last time you've seen employees at your local grocery store hosing down the carts? Never, because it's just not part of the program. It'd be a losing battle anyway, when you consider how many people use the cart in a day, and how many nooks and crannies there are for all sorts of microscopic bullshit to thrive in.
"But Cracked," you reasonably inquire, "what about the sanitizing wipes most stores have right next to the shopping carts? Surely those can be used to clean away all that crap." They can help, sure enough -- if you're willing to take 20 minutes per shopping trip to thoroughly wipe every inch of a device that is essentially a wheeled basket made of tiny secret microbe lairs. But even then, the only way to get them really clean would be to spray them with a cloud of disinfectant, or maybe run them through a car wash or something, after every use. But nobody does that, so poop carts it is!
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The amount of time that it takes for food to spoil isn't an exact science. Although supermarkets will slap a use-by date on the stuff at the meat counter, there's no guarantee that it's going to explode into a festering pile of salmonella as soon as the clock ticks over from midnight. After that, it's just a gamble as to whether eating that old chicken is going to result in 10 hours of rage pooping. But at least that use-by date puts the decision in your hands. If you want to go Deerhunter and play a game of E. coli roulette with expired meat, that's your choice.
The problem is, the date on the package might not mean shit -- supermarkets know full well how nebulous the concept of food spoilage can be, so if they haven't sold something by the time it hits the deadline and it hasn't turned green, they can just slap a new use-by date over the old one and call it fresh. And depending on where you live, the practice is completely legal, too: 30 states in the U.S. don't regulate date labeling of anything (save for, thankfully, infant formula). Essentially, this leaves the vast majority of American stores to regulate their wares with little more than their own moral (hahaha!) compass.
We're not talking about just adding one or two days' worth of shelf life, either. Here's an example of the trick, courtesy of Walmart:
The original use-/freeze-by date of that packet of delicious beef brisket was 09/19/11. The new one is 09/30/11. They're cheerfully selling you a meat product that has traveled 11 more fucking days toward Food Poisoning Junction than you thought. And that's not the Kwik-E-Mart, it's the biggest grocery chain in the world. Who knows what less accountable stores are selling?
Food wastage isn't just a problem for environmentalists to jump up and down about -- it's a problem for the giant grocery chains as well. After all, if you're not buying their shit, that's food that's going to have to be thrown away, and no profit can be made on it. Unless, of course, they have a way to recirculate bad food as new food.
Guess what! They do! There is an FDA-approved practice called food reconditioning, which essentially allows food manufacturers to take expiring and/or faulty products and "recondition" them into other products. The ensuing reconditioned food items -- once again prime fare in the eyes of the law -- are then happily stacked back on shelves for you to buy and stuff your face with. Depending on what you're buying, your groceries might be making their second (or third, or fourth) round on the supermarket shelf.
Examples range from relatively harmless, such as grinding misshapen pasta into semolina, to downright weird: For instance, any and all ice cream can be reconditioned into chocolate-flavored ice cream, no matter how badly it is messed up -- the chocolate flavor and dark color mask all the faults in the original taste. Because it's easier to label it "Chocolate" than "Botched Ice Cream Potpourri."
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Of course, the FDA allows food reconditioning on the condition that the resulting product is something safe to eat. But then some companies live by the philosophy that what the FDA doesn't know won't hurt them (unless they eat the product). That's what happened when a company recalled a bunch of moldy applesauce in 2011, then treated it and poured it back into the vat for redistribution to babies and schoolchildren. When the FDA found out, they sent the company a strongly worded letter, after which the company presumably made a solemn vow never to get caught again.
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Thanks to Europe's recent, highly publicized horse meat scandal, where meat from elderly horses was blatantly sold as beef, it's no secret that at least some food purveyors are not above feeding you mislabeled meat. Still, the fact that this particular scandal made international headlines is proof that that this kind of thing just doesn't fly, and the media will jump down their throats the second they find out that their hamburger used to say "neigh" rather than "moo."
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And in fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is adamant that all meat sold in the U.S. is exactly what it says on the package ... right up until the microphones go off, which is when they're happy to state that actual testing is extremely rare. It turns out they're basing their entire "all U.S. beef is real beef" argument on the fact that, as far as they know, no one is actively butchering horses for food on U.S. soil. When it comes to imported meat, it's only ever tested when there's some reason to believe a shipment is suspicious, like they hear a curious whinnying sound from inside the container.
But worrying about badger turning up in your bacon has got to be paranoia, right? Well, one study of 1,200-plus samples of fish products in the U.S. found that a third of the fish on the market is deliberately mislabeled in order to sell random, cheap fish as the species that fetch the highest prices. These counterfeit fish pose as expensive ones such as tuna and snapper, and they range from relatively harmless (if tasteless) ones such as tilapia to fucking snake mackerel -- a generally banned, harmful fish that can cause severe gastric distress to the poor soul who buys it as delicious tuna (even if we would feel incredibly badass striding up to the counter and asking for a big basket of snake mackerel).
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If you live in a city with more than three restaurants, we're going to bet you can remember at least one getting shut down for health code violations at some point. It happens all the time, and usually you just pat yourself on the back for having avoided eating at a breakfast joint run out of a shipping container called the Bearded Sausage. But now ask yourself: When's the last time you heard of a grocery store getting shut down for that reason? They all have delis that serve food now, right?
It's not because they're all spotless -- it's that the inspection system tends to take it very easy on them.
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While grocery stores do get inspected, unlike restaurants, they're not obligated to tell you if they failed the inspection, and they don't have a lot of motivation to change their practices. That's why when news reporters investigate the issue themselves by doing their own impromptu inspections, they frequently find dozens of violations, from moldy produce to meat sitting at temperatures way too low to keep germs away. These aren't things that the inspectors missed -- it turns out that the stores had failed inspections in the past, and when they brought the inspectors back, they failed again. No matter -- they get to stay open and keep serving customers. When NBC News did a check of 18 random stores that had gotten "critical" health violations in the past ("critical" meaning "bad enough to make a customer sick"), they found that 11 still had them -- and that was without being able to go behind the counter to see where the butcher was sticking his dick in the meat.
So why does the government let this go on? Well, that depends on what you mean by "the government" -- in the U.S., the federal government doesn't inspect places that serve food -- that's done by the local health departments, which are often too short-handed to keep up. Plus, grocery stores and restaurants are sometimes inspected by completely separate agencies. And the process of reporting and responding to the issues found in the inspections are almost exclusively between the inspector and the store.
So when the health inspector finds decaying rats next to your soon-to-be-purchased banana pudding, chances are he's not required to tell you, the customer, a goddamn word about it. And neither is the store itself. Sure, there is a failsafe where they have to cough up the paperwork if an individual specifically asks to see their scores, but the companies don't exactly advertise the option. Gosh, we wonder why.
To be fair, these are huge buildings selling thousands of items, with tens of thousands of filthy strangers filing in and out throughout the day. We're sure they're doing their best. It's just that their best can still leave you with food poisoning. And it's not like they never get shut down: Here's a store that was recently shut down in West Virginia after inspectors found a stunning 36 health code violations. They were shut down on a Monday and weren't allowed to reopen until -- let's check here -- Wednesday afternoon. See! The system works!
For more reasons why you shouldn't eat anything ever, check out 5 Horrifying Food Additives You've Probably Eaten Today. Or learn about 6 Subtle Ways You're Getting Screwed at the Grocery Store.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 4 Ridiculous Things That Caused Recent Bomb Scares .
And stop by LinkSTORM where we teach you to drink your own pee.
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Extra Credit: Dimpled cans and half-full bags of potato chips are robbing you blind while everything ELSE makes you sick. But at least the stuff making you sick is probably real, which is more than we can say about half the food in your kitchen. Your cheese is not what it seems. On the upside, grocery stores aren't any shadier than any other type of store.