Friday 4 April 2014

Are supermarkets safe?

We all know by now that certain supermarkets are screwing us.

We know that certain branches of a South African chain are marking up the prices of imported produce by anything between 25% and 97%. Of course they’ve claimed in the past that it costs them money to get their goods across the border but how come other South African stores that import goods can afford not to charge anything extra at all?

It gets worse. It’s not just our wallets that supermarkets are abusing. It’s our health. Maybe even our lives.

As well as checking the prices of goods in supermarkets we’ve been busy checking the standards of hygiene in the stores. We’ve been looking carefully at the way food is being stored, presented and sold.

The results are scary.

In almost all the stores we visited we found prepackaged food that hadn’t been labeled correctly. There were prepackaged vegetables, cheese, processed meat products, even frozen chicken pieces and fish that had no Use By dates displayed. There was no way of telling how old these items were. They could have packaged yesterday. They could have been packaged this day last year. Or worse.

The problem with prepackaged goods, particularly frozen products is you can’t use your senses to help you. Frozen products are solid and don’t smell of anything. You can’t poke them, squeeze them or sniff them to see if they seem good. You only find out later when you defrost them. That’s if you’re lucky, otherwise you find out when you spend the next 24 hours in the bathroom.

It’s also illegal. The Labelling of Prepackaged Foods Regulations require supermarkets to label prepackaged goods clearly. Depending on the nature of the food the label must give its name, weight or quantity, ingredients and, most importantly, the dates by which it must be used. This isn’t just government bureaucracy, it’s there to protect us.

But there’s worse. We found a huge number of items on sale either on their Use By date or very shortly before it.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with buying things on their Use By date, so long as the store makes it perfectly clear that you’ve got to consume the goods rapidly. In fact a smart store manager would be selling them at a discount. They would understand that they’ve got to throw the items away the following day anyway, so why not sell them with a discount and make customers happy. We all love a discount and if it means that I have to eat the item tonight I’m still happy because I got it cheap.

Worse still we found a number of items that had actually gone WAY past their Use By date. One store was offering pork shoulder that was four days after it’s Best Before date but worst of all were pork trotters on sale 12 days after they should have been consumed.

But there’s even worse. We saw food for sale that didn’t need a label to prove it wasn’t fit to be sold. In a variety of stores we found fruit and vegetables that shouldn’t have been anywhere near public displays. We saw carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, onions and butternuts that were beginning to rot. We saw tomatoes, sweetcorn, cauliflower, broccoli and strawberries with clearly visible mould on them.

In one store, admittedly one near a rather swampy area of Gaborone and not long after the recent heavy rain, we found chilled cabinets displaying cheese and cooked meats that were infested with dying flies. In the same store we saw meat debris lying all over the floor of the butchery area. Also in that store we found a pack of frozen crabsticks that actually contained, inside the packet itself, a large frozen insect.


We also saw some rather suspicious things in the freezer compartments. In two supermarkets we found bags of frozen prawns that had clearly defrosted and then been refrozen. It’s easy to spot. When they’re originally frozen the only liquid in the package is the water contained in the prawns themselves. When they’re defrosted this water is released and when they’re frozen again that forms into ice outside the prawns. Given our frequent power outages I suspect packets of frozen food are being repeatedly defrosted and refrozen. That’s enough to kill someone.

More worrying was the smell of decomposition we encountered in some stores. One store had a butchery section in which something had obviously died. Two others had fish sections that smelled of fish. You’re not surprised? You should be. Fresh fish does not smell fishy. Fresh fish smells of the sea. If fish smells fishy it’s because it’s decomposing.

You know that there are authorities with the power to monitor this. They have the power to inspect supermarkets, to demand explanations from managers and to insist that problems don’t happen again. You’ll also know that supermarkets should be checking these things themselves, every single day.

Clearly they’re not.

Yet again we are forced to protect ourselves. It’s up to us to check the quality of the food we’re offered, to check that it’s hygienic and safe, that it’s not going to poison us or, worse still, kill us.

There might be a final question in your mind as you read this. Why aren’t we naming the stores?

Trust me, we will, if we need to. So far all of the problems we discovered have been sent to the various store managers and their Head Offices. If, when we go out looking again, things haven’t improved you can rest assured that Mmegi readers will be the first people to discover which stores are trying to harm us.

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