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How Dirty is Your Local Chain Supermarket?

By Amy Zimmer | October 14, 2013 8:41am | Updated on October 14, 2013 9:14am
The New York World crunched five years worth of data from inspections of supermarkets to create a database searchable by zip code, address or intersection.
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The New York World

BROOKLYN — A poultry grinder encrusted with old meat, an ice machine for seafood coated with grime and mold, and wastewater from a sink near the smoothie area draining into an open bucket: These were among the violations at a Brooklyn Heights’ Garden of Eden.

This outpost of the gourmet grocer has the ignominious distinction of having the highest number of critical health code violations in the most recent year, according to an analysis released Monday by the New York World along with a database, searchable by zip code or address, allowing New Yorkers to see if their local supermarket chain stores had serious violations between 2008 and July 2013.

The Garden of Eden, on the ritzy Montague Street, had 20 “critical deficiencies” — violations the state deems “an immediate threat to the public health and welfare” — from July 2012 to July 2013.

Supermarkets across the city had mouse droppings in food preparation areas or mouse carcasses lying in traps or near stocked shelves. They had roaches scurrying around storage areas or food tainted by larvae. Inspections by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets — which are conducted at least once a year at every grocery store in the state — also found many markets stored food at improper temperatures, creating potential breeding grounds for foodborne illnesses.

Brooklyn Heights Garden of Eden manager Ali Colaokoglu said the store responded by stepping up extermination, hiring new chefs and doing more training about food temperature.

“Everything is on the right direction… Otherwise we couldn’t open and would get more fines,” he said. “We have a new chef, and we’re spending more time on cleaning so everything is above what we’re looking for.”

Garden of Eden had no critical violations on its most recent inspection, according to the data.

If a store with violations fails an inspection on a follow-up visit, fines can go up to $1,200 per critical deficiency and $200 for minor infractions, the New York World noted.

Whole Foods v. Trader Joe’s        

Food flying off the shelves at Trader Joe’s may frustrate some shoppers (along with the store’s long lines), but maybe the quick turnover isn’t such a bad thing when it comes to cleanliness. With only one critical deficiency in five years, it’s one of the city’s cleanest grocery chains, the New York World found.

Whole Foods, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well.

Its Upper West Side store, in a shiny new high-rise on Columbus and West 97th Street, had mouse droppings near the bakery and a poultry grinder caked with old meat. It had to toss 12 pounds worth of tomato basil, carrot ginger and split pea soups that weren’t kept at the right temperature for an unknown period of time, according to the violations. From July 2012 to July 2013, this Whole Foods had 12 critical deficiencies — the third-highest number of serious violations of all the city’s chain supermarkets during that period, the analysis found.

Whole Foods did not immediately respond for comment.

Dirtiest Chain

Associated, a network of independently owned and operated stores with more than 130 branches in the Metro area, accumulated the most violations in five years: 739 critical deficiencies. Key Food came in second with 668 violations, followed by C-Town with 447, the New York World reported.

An Associated on the Upper East Side, on Lexington Avenue and East 96th Street, for instance, racked up 35 serious violations in five years. Last year, the store had to destroy 12 pounds worth of expired baby formula that had “coagulated on can interiors.” In 2009 inspectors found raw beef was “subjected to cross contamination” from raw chicken. An Associated near Stuyvesant Town, at East 14th Street and First Avenue, had to toss 4 pounds of Lay’s potato chips that had rodent gnaw marks — one of 17 serious violations  found there in the last five years.

“Anytime a report comes in we correct things right away,” said Norman Quintanilla, the Stuy Town store’s manager of 10 years, who noted that inspectors have gotten more strict in recent years.

The store immediately tackled the violations found in the last two inspections, he said.  When mouse droppings and cockroaches were found in a basement storage area, the staff took “the whole section apart” to fix the problem. When hot water wasn’t working, they called a plumber the same day, Quintanilla said.

Dirtiest Store

The Met Foods on Fulton Street in Cypress Hills had 72 serious violations in five years. Hundreds of mouse droppings were found in various corners from the walk-in meat cooler to the deli prep station. There were six dead mice spotted — including one in the bread aisle — and rodenticide found on bread shelves.

The store’s owner did not immediately respond for comment.

Another Met Foods branch, on Amsterdam Avenue near 125th Street, topped Manhattan’s list, with 48 critical deficiencies, followed by a Murray Hill Gristedes on Third Avenue with 44, according to the analysis.

Dirtiest Neighborhood

The 11208 zip code — which includes Cypress Hills, parts of East New York and the Jamaica Bay area — is home to the worst-offending Met Food and eight other dirty supermarkets that racked up 189 critical deficiencies altogether over the last five years, the New York World found. It’s also an area with such dearth of fresh food that the city offers special tax incentives to attract grocers, the publication noted.

“There are definite food-access issues in the community,” said Shai Lauros, of the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation.

Though she hadn’t heard about widespread problems with violations in particular, she said that residents have complained about expired food at markets.

“There is an issue where there is not sufficient quality and diversity of healthy fresh produce being provided,” Lauros said. “Therefore, we know customers are going outside the neighborhood to do their shopping, whether it’s for fresh produce or shelf stable goods. So you won’t have the demand to move products off the shelves.”

Other neighborhoods with problematic markets include the tourist mecca of Midtown West: eight supermarkets racked up 151 violations. In Highbridge and Morrisania inspectors found 128 offenses in the past five years.

Cleanest Neighborhoods

Markets in Astoria, Richmond Hill, Kew Gardens, Woodside, Addisleigh Park and Queens Village had nearly spotless records, the New York World found.

Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan’s West Village also had very clean chain supermarkets.