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6. "Federal guidelines? Who cares?"
While the FDA regularly issues a food code to suggest good safety practices, it's merely a recommendation the federal government has no role in supermarket inspection. Not surprisingly, few of the 3,000 regional inspection authorities update their local regulations to match the current food code. The result? Utter inconsistency.
The food code, for instance, recommends that cold foods be kept at 41 degrees or lower, but most states set it at 45. The code also recommends that stores be given a maximum of 10 days to correct health violations; Vermont gives stores a month to comply.
"Some localities are still using the 1976 code," says Charlotte Christin, a food safety attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. "There are pathogens that injure people every year that no one even knew about [in 1976], such as a deadly strain of E. coli."
Even if the local laws reflect high standards, they're not always enforced. "Most states require annual inspections, but that's often not taken seriously," says Lafrate. "In a lot of states, inspections are generated only on a consumer complaint basis" a good excuse to complain if your store looks subpar.
7. "'Fresh' is a relative term."
What do some supermarkets do if the steaks don't sell fast enough and start to look a little grungy? Grind it up into hamburger meat. If the chicken is past its "sell by" date? Slap a new label on it.
Surprise! Except for regulations about baby food and infant formula, there are no federal laws mandating product dating. In most states a retailer may legally sell foods beyond the date on the package as long as the product can be considered unspoiled and safe to eat. Even repackaging is legal.
The FDA does requires that if dates are provided, they be accompanied by an explanatory phrase, but those phrases won't reveal much about the true state of the kielbasa in your cart: A "sell by" date simply tells the store how long to display the product, while a "best if used by" date can suggest when the product will lose its peak flavor or quality. Only an expiration date can be used by the supermarket as an indicator of whether food is still safe to eat. Not that you're likely to find one. In the majority of states, no type of freshness dating on food is required at all.
8. "We like to play head games."
Shoppers who stick to a prepared shopping list are few and far between and they're also the supermarket's worst enemy.
How do supermarkets capitalize on your tendency to stray? They play soft music in the aisles, inducing you to relax and spend, says Richard Rauch, a professor of marketing at Long Island University who consults for supermarket chains. Some stores, he adds, even use special mood-enhancing lighting that filters out higher frequencies in the visible light spectrum. It produces only relaxing colors such as blues and purples, which reduce the rate at which your eyes blink. "It slows your pace and gets your mind to slow down," says Rauch. "Using lighting to create an atmosphere is not an unusual tactic. Most of the larger, more sophisticated stores use it."
That bakery smells good, doesn't it? There's a reason those ovens are always on full blast. "Studies show the smell of baking bread drives people bonkers," says Jain. The scent drives up sales all over the store. "We haven't encountered these things," says Todd Hultquist, a spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute, a retail association. "Retailers want to offer the best value, quality and selection. That's what drives sales."
9. "Our product offerings are rigged."
So your local supermarket stopped carrying your favorite brand of potato chips? Don't assume it was discontinued. More likely, the manufacturer refused to fork over its "slotting fee" a payment to the supermarket in return for shelf space.
Many manufacturers gladly pay such fees to score shelf space at eye level, where the products are most likely to attract attention. But other kinds of slotting fees stifle competition, hurt consumers and hold smaller manufacturers over a barrel. Among the worst: "pay to stay" fees regular payments the manufacturer makes if it wants to sell its goods in the store. According to Rauch, supermarkets make more than half their profits on such fees. It's an issue that many small manufacturers quietly accept for fear of angering the powerful supermarket chains. At a 1999 Senate Small Business Committee hearing on the issue, some small manufacturers testified with hoods and voice scramblers to conceal their identity.
Slotting-fee profits are passed to consumers as lower prices, insists Hultquist. But Nicholas Pyle, vice president of the Independent Bakers Association, says those fees force bakeries to increase wholesale prices, which cancels out in-store savings. "Otherwise," he says, "they couldn't survive."
10. "Our scanners are a scam."
While supermarkets were among the first stores to adopt scanners, many stores still can't use them right. A 1998 FTC study of supermarket scanner systems found that roughly a fourth failed to earn a passing grade, and a few chains overcharged customers on more than one out of 12 items.
The most common errors are made on sale items, says Jerry Butler, a field supervisor with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture's Standards Division. Usually, store management just neglects to enter the sale price into the scanner system.
Tim Duffy says that jotting down prices and watching the register can pay off more than you think. Over the course of one year, he patronized California supermarkets that give customers an item for free if the scanner rings up the wrong price. By year's end, he says, he took home more than $4,000 in free food, which he donated to charity.
Originally published on August 1, 2001.