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Last night, Dateline NBC aired a segment titled “Supermarket Sweep,” the investigative news show’s report on what it described as a year-long look into the food safety and sanitation records of the nation’s top ten supermarkets. The study was done by looking at an entire years worth of health inspection records from a random sample of 100 stores from each of ten chains, covering 27 different states. The records came from 2004, in order for the show to have a complete year to evaluate. The stores were ranked according to the amount of critical violations they had on average for every 10 health inspections. Following are the results, as reported by Dateline:

• Food Lion (8 violations for every 10 inspections)
• Wal-Mart and Sav-a-Lot (9 for every 10)
• Costco and Sam’s Club (12 for every 10)
• Winn Dixie (14 for every 10)
• Kroger (17 for every 10)
• Publix (22 for every 10)
• Albertson’s (24 for every 10)
• Safeway (25 for every 10)

The biggest problem for Safeway was temperature violations, and for Albertsons it was improperly stored toxic chemicals.

Each of the companies was given the opportunity to respond. James Sinegal, CEO of Costco, was the only one to respond in person. He said that he was disappointed to hear his stores had received critical violations on their health inspections, but they are constantly working to improve their operations. He also stated the industry is trying to make certain the food supply is as clean and safe as it can be, but nobody is infallible.

Each of the other retail companies sent Dateline NBC written responses saying, in essence that they work to correct violations as quickly as possible and have strict guidelines and standards in place for their chains to follow. Safeway also noted that the reports were taken from 2004 and since then the chain has worked to improve its food safety and sanitation records.

In addition to ranking the stores, the segment offered suggestions about what customers should look for in their supermarkets. After leading off with images of a cockroach in a cookie, dead flies in spilled orange juice and bugs in flour, Jeff Nelkin, a food safety expert, advised consumers to be aware of their surroundings when shopping at their local supermarket.

At the end of the report, the correspondent did note that 25 percent of the stores they looked at did not receive any critical violations at all.

The Dateline report also is available in text form on, including a blog from reporter Lea Thompson, who writes:

“Frankly, I was surprised the inspection reports showed so many temperature citations: perhaps it is something I didn't think much about before. But, if hot food is not kept hot enough, in the deli for instance, it can form dangerous bacteria after only a few hours. And the same thing goes for cold food — say deli meat or cheese. If it gets too warm, it starts to decay. Yuck.

“Another surprise for me? We found an awful lot of expired products on the shelf. How many of us ever look for expiration dates? The one that bothered us the most was infant formula. Infant formula is often the sole source of nutrition for babies... and we know that after a period of time the vitamins start to drop out.

“We also found a lot of nasty, disgusting things— mouse and rat traps, egg goo all over everything, meat sitting on bloody trays...

“Please know that there are a lot of really clean stores in this country... but it is hard to know sometimes what is clean and what isn't.”
KC's View:
The hard reality of stories like these is that they are never good news, and that the disgusting stuff always makes better pictures than a well-run, sanitary supermarket.

The equally hard reality is that there always will be companies that aren’t getting the job done when it comes to food safety and sanitation – and that the industry often will be measured by the least of these companies, not the best.

What we find disappointing is that only Costco’s Jim Sinegal was willing to appear on camera. Best we can tell, he didn’t hurt either his credibility or that of his company by doing so. Rather, he looks open and above board.

These are core consumer issues that will not go away just because a chain decides not to talk. These are issues that go straight to the heart of what food chains are supposed to do well.

There is no excuse for these kinds of violations. And there is no excuse for being anything less than completely transparent.