Back in the 1960’s, I worked part-time as a stock boy and morning assistant manager for a now long-defunct grocery chain in one of Chicago’s far south suburbs. I did this job for several years while attending high school and junior college. Back then, our shoppers never gave a thought to whether or not their meat and poultry products were safe. And to be honest, I never heard of anyone getting sick from eating our food or complaining about food safety.
The store’s butchers were showmen and masters at what they did. They’d get quarter beef, hog and occasionally lamb and veal carcasses early in the morning, which they’d carry from the truck over their shoulders and hang on a short line in the back to break them down into smaller retail cuts later that same morning. Whole chicken arrived in waxed cardboard boxes filled with ice, from what I remember. Larger carcass pieces were broken down in the back with knives and manual saws while the smaller cuts and overwrap packaging were done behind the open counter alongside a mirrored wall for all to see on the store floor. At the end of the day, the butcher’s starched, white aprons were so soiled I was convinced they could never get properly cleaned again.
The black-and-red square floor tiles behind the meat counter were heavily sprinkled each morning with fresh saw dust to soak up the blood and other debris that fell to the floor behind and in front of the meat counter. All but one of the six butchers were heavy smokers and it was quite common for them to have lit cigarettes dangling from their mouths as they squinted through the rising smoke to make the final cuts and place these cuts into overwrap packaging. Occasionally, cigarette ashes would fall and they were simply brushed off by hand from the counters ....and yes, sometimes meat. And I can still smell the odor of burning plastic and see the bluish tint in the air from the packaging machinery.
Some of the butchers wore paper hats — that is until they disintegrated in the heat and sweat, which was common during the hot, humid summers, particularly when the store was jammed with hurried shoppers. By the end of the day, trails of blood-soaked saw dust could be found throughout the store. The stock boys simply would sweep it up and swab the floors before heading home.
Fast-forward to the early 2000s. I found myself at that time working for a monthly retail trade magazine, which required visiting leading supermarket meat and deli departments throughout the US. The hanging quarter carcasses and boxes of iced chicken of the 1960s were replaced by boxed meat and case-ready packages of meat and poultry and the sawdust was now nothing more than a memory. Meat and deli department floors were sparkling clean; stainless-steel equipment and sinks illuminated in the lights.... while back-of-the-counter equipment was routinely broken down, cleaned and sanitized each day —sometimes more than once. Knives and saws were now routinely cleaned and sanitized throughout the day and sometimes between cuts.
And the facilities that make meat and poultry today are equally impressive when it comes to maintaining and enhancing food safety. I’ve had the good fortune to visit many production facilities during my career and the food-safety evolution in packing and processing has been nothing short of extraordinary. Stainless-steel walls and ceilings, a myriad of food safety interventions and a Marine-like discipline to cleanliness and sanitation is now the norm in a growing number of facilities.
I wish those who have never stepped foot inside of a packing or processing plant or worked near or behind a meat counter — but who routinely criticize food-safety efforts in the supermarket and meat and poultry industries — could have walked a mile in my shoes. It has been quite an impressive journey.