Bargain Foods: Safe To Eat?

Grocery Outlets are locally owned and have strict food safety policies.

Grocery Outlets are locally owned and have strict food safety policies.

Are Bargain Foods Safe To Eat?

Families who are challenged to live on a tight budget often cut corners on their food bill. Discount stores have small food sections and larger markets like Winco and Grocery Outlet offer a  wider selection of discounted food products. The question often asked is “If food costs less, is their product inferior?”

To answer this question, I took a ride around our area to compare how safely grocers and stores handle food. My findings may surprise you!

But before revealing my conclusions,please understand that I am not a health inspector. I Took no swabs and didn’t grow bacteria in a lab. I approached this from a consumer’s point of view.

Secondly, I was looking for bargains that seemed relatively safe to eat. Local grocers like Haggens, Safeway and Bellingham Food Coop were not included. They are not bargain-priced, but only because their freshness and quality standards are high. So comparing apples to apples here is what you can look for:

  • Store #1 had great prices on canned goods and boxed food. However some cans were dented, boxes torn and many dressings were still on the shelf way past their “sell before” date. Is the food safe to eat? I’ll answer that after I compare 2 more stores.
  • store #2 offered a wide choice of food, Prices on 5 common items were 5% lower than Fred Meyer. All shelf items were within their “buy before” date. To cut costs, they offered fewer brands of canned and baked goods and displayed some produce in the original packing crate. Some of the lettuce seemed wilted and not very cold. Much of their meat was stored safely behind glass in refrigerated units, while the top layer of meat in open cold units seemed warmer than 40 degrees.
  • Store #3 offered a very limited brand selection but prices were 10% lower than Fred Meyer. Even more savings were to be had in the frozen food section. And, I noticed that all the shelf goods were dated within the “Safe if used by…” date.

So, what were some of the alarming food conditions I found that you too can look for when determining if food is safe.

  • Avoid dented cans. Their seal could be broken and bacteria may grow inside,
  • Torn and crushed boxes signal mishandled food. It’s not worth the risk to buy it.
  • If a package is on the shelf after the “best if used by”,  “use before” or “sell before” date, it only means it is past its best condition date. It could be perfectly safe to eat. Other than baby formula and some baby foods, there are no uniform standards enforcing “pull dates.” Read more about safety standards.
  • Leafy greens and meat need to be kept under 41 degrees F to be safe. If warmer, don’t buy it.
  • It’s your decision whether to buy produce from a packing crate. It has probably not been cleaned, at least not in the local store. I prefer a grocer like Terra Organica which takes pride in produce quality.
  • The last thing to look for is frozen vegetables in solid clumps. That signals that it has thawed and been refrozen. Find bags of loose produce.

As for recommending a grocer, I can’t do that. You need to make that call and I hope I have given you some things to look for. If you want more information, visit the Grocery Outlet site.