MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - A WMBF News investigation has uncovered Grand Strand supermarkets selling packages of meat that had been returned to the store.
Using a hidden camera, members of our staff went into 18 grocery stores from Garden City to North Myrtle Beach. We purchased meat, kept it in a cooler for about an hour, then returned it to the same location.
Half the time, at nine stores, we videotaped employees putting the meat back in the display case.
Another member of our staff then purchased it again.
"Can you take this back?" one Piggly Wiggly employee asked a fellow employee after we returned a package of meat. "There's nothing wrong with it. He just bought the wrong thing."
However, food safety experts say stores put consumers' health in danger and their own businesses in legal jeopardy when they try to re-sell meat someone has returned.
"Once a product goes out of the grocery store and if it's returned they don't know what may have happened to it once it walked out of the store," said Thom Berry, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Environmental Control, which sends food inspectors into grocery stores and restaurants across South Carolina.
An employee at a Food Lion store clearly knew the danger. She threw away the meat we returned right in front of us.
"Anytime any meat or anything like that ever leaves the store and it has to be brought back, we have to throw it away because there's no telling," she said. "There's no telling if you stick a needle and punch a hole in it."
Someone deliberately contaminating meat was a concern of public health officials and a state lawmaker with whom we shared details of our investigation after it was completed.
However, a much more likely health safety issue would be the temperature at which the meat was kept while it was outside the store. It can get into what those in the food industry describe as the "danger zone."
"The danger zone is once a meat or refrigerated item gets over 46 degrees," said Lowes Foods manager Rob Gullion.
WMBF News did not see any Lowes Foods employees in Surfside or Myrtle Beach trying to re-sell the meat that we brought back. Informed of the results of our investigation, the company allowed us to talk with Gullion, who says he also teaches a meat safety program through the National Restaurant Association.
"It can only be 46 or 47 degrees for about an hour until it's bad," Gullion said.
Some literature we found online even suggests not allowing meat to reach 40 degrees or above before it's cooked. The danger is bacteria can grow, tainting the meat.
Each store we contacted said they have policies against allowing their employees to re-sell meat someone has returned.
Piggly Wiggly's spokeswoman, Rita Postell, said it "blows me away" that employees at two of the chain's stores were videotaped putting returned meat back on the shelf.
However, according to information from DHEC, stores may not be violating state regulations when their employees do this if they believe the meat is "still in sound condition."
"And that's the linchpin for everything," Berry commented.
WMBF News asked if South Carolina gives store employees too much discretion in deciding what's safe.
"There are associates at stores all over the country that make these decisions every day," Berry said. "That's why many times when we get a complaint like this not only will we talk with the individual store, we'll also talk with the corporate management, as well. Because they are very much aware of the liability that attaches to such a practice."
When we showed our undercover footage to State Rep. Alan Clemmons (R-Horry County), he called the store employees' actions "disturbing," but said he's also concerned DHEC's regulations may not be tough enough.
"I will contact DHEC myself and talk to them about this type of activity," he said. "I think it's inappropriate."
DHEC's spokesman tells WMBF News the relevant section of food regulations is #61-25, chapter two, paragraph five:
- a. Once served to a consumer, portions of leftover food shall not be served again, except that packaged food, other than potentially hazardous food, that is still packaged and is still in sound condition, may be re-served."
DHEC officials wrote this regulation based on guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration. Here's the link to that information: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~ear/retail.html. Click on 2005 Food Code. Then go to chapter three, page 71, according to DHEC.