When most people visit the grocery store, they are thinking about the meals they have planned, the lunch box items they might need to buy and the coupons they might have. For Hamlin Landis, a food regulatory specialist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, food safety is top of mind when he steps into the grocery store.
The department’s Food and Drug Protection Division is responsible for routinely checking products at retail outlets such as grocery stores, markets and warehouse facilities. These inspections often involve collecting samples of raw products such as blueberries, strawberries and apples to be analyzed for pesticide residue, or checking packaged products for microorganisms such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli.
As one of 24 food regulatory specialists, Landis inspects stores on a rotating basis, as well as by complaint. In addition to his regular inspection duties, once a week he performs a routine sample survey on a product at a randomly selected store. “When we collect a sample for microbiological testing, we take five of the same item,” said Landis. “The item must have the same sell-by date, made-by date or product code. If we were sampling soup, it would need the same sell-by date. Earlier this year we sampled asparagus; each sample needed the same packer code.”
Landis has worked for the Food and Drug Protection Division for about five years, but he held a similar job with Winn Dixie Supermarkets prior to joining the department. His inspection area now includes Raleigh, Cary and Morrisville. “Problems we are looking for include misbranded or adulterated food, temperature abuse, insect or rodent issues and over-the-counter medicines or baby formula that is expired,” he said. Landis estimates that he embargoes a food product about once every 10 days. Embargoed food must be removed from sale until the problem can be corrected.
Recently, Landis’ sample-collection assignment was for prepackaged sandwiches from the deli at a grocery store. After checking in with the store manager and stating the purpose of his visit, Landis visited the deli. There, he collected five sandwiches, bagged them individually, labeled them with bar codes and placed them in a cooler. The cooler was then locked to prevent tampering. The cooler must stay in Landis’ sight until chain of custody is passed along at the lab. He wheeled the samples to the break room so he could fill out paperwork. While still in the store, Landis filled out a form to describe each sample and denote the requested lab work. In this case, the samples needed microbiological analysis, which looks for harmful bacteria such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli. This form and the bar codes will accompany the samples throughout the Food and Drug Protection Division’s Constable Laboratory in Raleigh.
“Chain of custody is always maintained with the samples,” said Landis. “Once the sample is labeled in the store, the bar code follows it through from collection to receipt at the lab.” Procedures are strictly followed to maintain the integrity of the samples. Once paperwork is completed, the samples are driven to the Constable Laboratory. Next week we will follow the samples into the lab for analysis.
**If you have reason to suspect that food in the grocery store is not wholesome, contact the Food and Drug Protection Division at 919-733-7366. Please have as much information as possible, including the store you purchased from, date of purchase, product code or lot numbers and any other details you can provide. The laboratory will not accept samples from the public. Food inspectors must collect original samples from the store to maintain chain-of-custody integrity of the samples.**