Each aisle in the supermarket contains different foods packaged in different ways. Certain foods should always be avoided if its container is damaged or compromised. Here's a general look at food and its respective packaging:
- Meat is usually packaged in Styrofoam and plastic. You should be able to see the meat clearly, and it should be stored at the proper refrigerated temperature (below 40 degrees Fahrenheit). Generally speaking, the redder in color, the fresher the meat is. While some consumers might believe discolored beef is spoiled, beef will naturally turn a grayish-brown shade when it comes into contact with oxygen, and many meat-packing companies actually inject carbon monoxide into the package to keep the product looking fresh longer. The way to check whether meat is spoiled is to make sure the package isn't bulging, it doesn't give off a bad smell and it isn't slimy when handled.
- Packaging for dairy products varies, but you can easily tell if your milk, yogurt, butter, sour cream or other dairy should be avoided. Make sure plastic containers aren't damaged in any way, such as with a split plastic cup, broken seal or ripped bag. If a container has a plastic or foil seal under the lid (many brands of yogurt, cottage cheese and sour cream do), you should be able to open the lid and see whether the seal is intact. If not, the food is compromised and should not be bought or eaten. Many milk containers now have a plastic cap with another seal you have to remove. A seal that's securely intact is a good sign the milk is safe to drink.
- Grains, pastas and cereals are often double-packaged. If the outside box is crushed or torn, it doesn't necessarily mean the food inside is compromised. If the packet or bag inside the box is still sealed, the food is safe.
One phenomenon that has become more widespread is the rise of "scratch-and-dent" or salvage grocery stores. These stores have popped up around the country as a way both to ease the pain of high food costs and for supermarkets to clear their shelves of food that didn't sell well or that looks less than perfect. Salvage grocery stores have become popular because they offer deep discounts on food, produce and toiletries.
If you buy damaged food from a traditional grocery store and you have your original receipt, you should be able to return or exchange it if you discover it's spoiled after getting it home from the store. If you buy from a salvage grocery store, however, returns aren't allowed, so choose your food wisely.
Remember, with any food, if you doubt its safety, throw it out. It's better to be safe than sorry.