Elisabeth is a 13-time Emmy-winner, a critically acclaimed personal finance author, and a 20-year consumer advocate for programs such as Good Morning America and The Dr. Oz Show. Connect with her via Twitter @ElisabethLeamy and on her website, Leamy.com.
Gas stations now make more money off of food than they do from gas, in terms of profit margins. In fact, many should really be called “food stations,” as they spend more time and money preparing fuel for humans than for vehicles. No longer do they just stock candy bars and chips. Many gas stations make made-to-order sandwiches or feature hot bars loaded with wings, nuggets, and more. So if they’re going to act like restaurants, we should hold them to restaurant standards.
But when we went undercover with professional food safety inspector Francine Shaw, President of Food Safety Training Solutions, we found problems at every gas station convenience store we visited, from dirty facilities to poor employee hygiene to unsafe food holding temperatures. Shaw said she’s seen some gas station convenience stores that do a great job with their food safety, but these businesses do face unique challenges, since they’re trying to be so many things to so many people.
So what red flags can you look out for to protect YOURSELF when you’re on a road trip and need to pick up provisions?
- Dirty facilities. If the place isn’t clean, it’s a sign that the management doesn’t care. On our tour of these businesses we saw spotty floors, crusty drink nozzles, debris in beverage coolers, crumbs and goo in the gaskets of food cases, and actual mold in an ice chute. And if you can SEE dirt, who knows what kind of problems you CAN’T see behind the scenes?
- Poor employee hygiene. Food-handlers should wash their hands and THEN put on gloves. Long hair should be restrained in ponytails, caps, or hair nets; long beards in beard nets. Ideally food handlers should wear aprons. Long — real or fake — fingernails are not appropriate as they can puncture gloves and harbor bacteria.
- Multi-tasking employees. Studies show none of us are great at multi-tasking and there’s a special risk when food service workers switch from making food to handing money or mopping back to making food: they often forget to wash their hands in between. Yuck!
- Cold foods that aren’t cold enough. Perishable items like cold sandwiches, yogurt, cheese, eggs, and so on are required to be kept at a constant temperature of 41°F or colder to prevent harmful pathogens from growing. If there’s a thermometer in the cooler, make sure it says 39° or colder, which will keep the items in it at 41 or colder. The thermometer should be located towards the front of the cooler as this is the warmest location — if it is cold enough here, the rest of the unit should be fine. If there isn’t a thermometer, make sure they feel nice and cold to the touch. Better yet, choose items that are as close to the cooling element as possible, often near the bottom or near the back. Beware of foods that are double-stacked, and avoid the ones that are on the top, since they’re further from the cooling element.
- Hot foods that aren’t hot enough. Hot foods are typically required to be held at a constant temperature of 135 to 140° F, depending on the jurisdiction — again to avoid bacteria growth. With hot food holding cases, where items like hotdogs and chicken nuggets are often stacked, items on the bottom may not be hot enough, because they are further from the heating element. These items may look sort of “glazed” and stale — the way leftovers look — if they’ve been sitting there too long at too low a temperature.
- Moisture is the enemy. For example, if there is any condensation dripping from a refrigeration fan or on the inside of a cooler that’s not cold enough, it’s a food safety concern. Excessive moisture provides the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive and mold spores to grow. During our undercover visits, we also spotted floor drains that appeared to be full of whitish goo and others that were actually backing up onto the floors of cooking areas. That’s a potential recipe for food borne illnesses such as listeria.
- Packaged foods may rule. If you spot signs like the above, but you’re on a road trip and desperate for some food, packaged snacks may be the way to go. But, of course, Dr. Oz — and others — often tell you to eat fewer packaged foods. In this case, the short-term health impact of possible food poisoning is more pressing than the long-term ones that accompany processed foods. And besides, if you feel like you’re about to go nuts with hunger, that’s your cue: eat nuts! Even the most basic gas station convenience stores usually have a selection of packaged nuts, and they’re a wonderfully healthy snack to fuel your body while your fuel your car.
- Beware expired foods. For all food stores, there’s a tension between having enough inventory and not wasting food. It can be even tougher for gas station convenience stores because they’re smaller than grocery stores and some are quite remote. So expired foods are an occasional reality. “Best buy,” “Use by,” and “Sell by” dates are not as much cause for concern, but actual expiration dates should be heeded. A few stores have even been caught doing things like changing “3s” to “8s” to push out an expiration date. So keep your eyes open for strange-looking markings and stickers on food packages.