I work at a grocery store now. The backstory to this (that I'm sure I'll write about in more detail later) is that a year ago, I was steadily climbing the ladder of a full-time marketing career, but I saw the future... I wasn't a fan, jumped off, and found myself back in school studying dietetics. And to get by, I'm working part-time as a cashier at a place you have definitely heard of.
We sell stuff that's all natural, organic, non-GMO, etc. and we have a lot of customers shopping for a new diet. Remember that? Your first trip to the grocery store after being diagnosed? Yeah. Those customers are my favorite. (And I'm so thankful that trip's over).
As a celiac cashier I'll admit, I am weirdly excited when I check out people buying all gluten-free products, and disappointed and unnecessarily judgmental when they deny any gluten-intolerance but still eat gluten-free... Sometimes I offer to keep the glutenous bread and flour in a different bag than the GF stuff. Sometimes that's appreciated, and sometimes people look at me like that's a suggestion only a Looney Tune would make.
After spending hundreds of hours in a grocery store, I can tell you I've seen some stuff that's made me rethink how to grocery shop. To me, grocery stores were the safest places; where all the whole, natural, "safe" ingredients temporarily live before I transport them to my "safe" kitchen to make a "safe" meal. But now, I know too much. I don't have the luxury of blissful ignorance. And it's better that I don't. While we all know about being extra careful and interrogatory at restaurants about cross-contamination, we need to step up our game at our markets. Or at least I did.
1. Bag your produce.
Yep, just like safe sex, your produce needs protection. Those little, plastic, green bags that are hella annoying to open are actually crucial to preventing cross-contamination.
This probably sounds like a no-brainer, but I've seen SO MANY PEOPLE just plop their beautiful, pristine produce right into the cart and then right onto the cash register's belt.
Let's talk about both of those things. The carts do not get washed. They don't even get wiped down usually, at least not on a regular basis. They're just shuffled around from customer to customer, in and out, and in and out of the store for 15 hours a day, to then sit overnight all nestled and touching each other before the hot potato cart exchange begins the next day. Carts are gross.
Because not only do carts rarely get washed, but they are almost always filled with glutenous crap. Flour; the white, bleached flour. Old pizza crusts from the hot bar. Crumbs from the cookie the kid ate. Crumbs from the cookie the parents ate. Little cups from the samples of crackers and dips and whatever the store's management is trying to push on you, left to live indefinitely in the corners of the cart's wire frame.
It can be a lot of gluten. I never thought about that.
And then we have the belt. That black, looping monster that touches hundreds of products every day. And while yes, this conveyor is disinfected on a regular basis, the cashier is not thinking to pause and thoroughly wipe off the spilled wheat flour or barley seeds when her line is five people deep.
The flour is probably my biggest concern about the cash register belt. Flour sucks. It seems like if you even just wave your finger a liiiiiittle too close to the bag, half of it will poof out into a white orb that lingers in your space. I honestly hold my breath every time I have to ring up someone buying wheat flour. That stuff spreads like a bad virus.
So every time I see someone buying gluten-free products and un-bagged, uncovered fresh produce, I cringe. That belt is often covered in microscopic, residual flour dust which your apples and peaches and zucchinis are now exposed to. Not to mention whatever it might have touched while it was in the cart...
So yeah, practice safe produce.
2. Wash your produce when you get home.
"Hey, why would I need to bag my produce if I'm just going to wash it when I get home?"
Because how well do you really wash your produce, huh? Are you THAT sure you're getting all the grime and crap off of it when you run it under your facet for like three seconds? What if you forget to wash it? What if you're so hungry you HAVE to eat the strawberries on the drive home? Wouldn't you be glad you at least had them bagged?
Even if you bag your produce, the thing about it is that before your apple was sitting pretty in an enticing display, it was in a box, on a truck, loaded by a mystery person, who probably plucked it from some farm you've never heard of.
I'm not saying the entire produce industry is disgusting and out to contaminate every ripe plant you wish to consume... I'm just saying there's a LOT that happens before you put your carrots into your cart. And some of what happens MIGHT involve gluten exposure. It might not. It probably doesn't. BUT WE DON'T KNOW.
So wash it.
3. Don't buy gluten-free flour if it's right next to the wheat flour.
Or at least wipe off the bag when you get home.
Look, I know I seem HORRIBLY anal retentive about this whole wheat flour thing, but I'm telling you, that sh*t gets EVERYWHERE. Pretty sure I was glutened one night after a particularly large bag of wheat flour on my scanner poofed into my face as I inhaled.
Your grocery store might think it's convenient or even "trendy" to mix GF and wheat products on the same shelves, but when it comes to flour, we need to demand separation. Your bag of all-purpose GF flour will be a lot less useful if you bake one batch with it only to get sick from contamination thanks to its all-purpose wheat flour neighbor. When I see the two side-by-side, all I can think about is the light dusting of wheat that's likely covering the GF flour bag, just waiting to enter its contents once opened, causing all hell to break loose in your intestines after you eat half the batch (or all) of your unknowingly contaminated GF cookies.
But if management at your grocery store does not understand the significance of separate but equal flour placements, and you're forced to buy touching bags, AT LEAST wipe your GF bag down with a damp paper towel when you get home.
I know it sounds crazy.
But save yourself. Save the cookies!
Safe shopping, my friends.