Mouse droppings, aisle 2
A baseball bat used to grind meat. A thousand shiny mouse droppings. Leaking pink goop on a meat counter cutting board.
Welcome to your neighborhood supermarket.
At least once a year, inspectors from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets visit every grocery store in the state. We’ve combed through their reports to find what the inspectors call “critical deficiencies” — issues the state deems “an immediate threat to the public health and welfare” — in New York City supermarkets over the last five years.
By typing in an address, intersection, zip code or neighborhood, you can see which chain grocery stores have had serious violations between Jan. 2008 and July 2013, and what those violations were. You can also see if conditions in that store have been getting better or worse.
So which markets are crawling with the most vermin, caked with the most filth and oozing with unknown substances of all colors?
In some cases, they’re some of the more upscale ones in town. Poultry grinders encrusted with old food and fresh mouse droppings near the bakery and loading area were among the 12 serious violations received by the Whole Foods market on Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side from July 2012 to July 2013, the third-highest number of all the city’s chain supermarkets during that period.
In that same period, the Melrose Ave. location of Pioneer Supermarkets in the Bronx was written up 13 times. Inspectors found hundreds of “fresh shiny appearing rat droppings” in several areas of the store. In 2012, inspection reports showed that about 200 “live adult and nymph German cockroaches” were found crawling in the store’s basement as well as inside boxes of Goya beverages.
The grocery store with the highest number of critical deficiencies in the most recent year, ending in July, is the Garden of Eden in Brooklyn Heights, with 20 offenses. Among them: old encrusted meat residues on food contact surfaces, mold and grime in the area of the seafood area ice machine and “deep knife scores containing imbedded/dark matter across food contact surfaces.”
Shoppers at Whole Foods in upper Manhattan expressed surprise at the high number of citations. Whole Foods spokesman Michael Sinatra did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Alecia Smith, 27, who shops at Whole Foods on a regular basis, said she usually prefers to buy her fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets anyway.
“On meat and fish, I’m iffy,” she added. “I never know where to shop.”
According to Joe Morrissey, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Markets, the total number of violations statewide has decreased 11 percent since 2000. In the city, too, supermarkets appear to be getting cleaner: They saw 597 serious violations in 2012, nearly half the almost 1,100 that inspectors found in 2008.
Still, the state records show there’s plenty of filth to go around.
What’s wrong with my grocery store exactly?
In the last five years, inspectors have seen an awful lot of animal poop: They have slammed New York City’s supermarkets 1,964 times for likely contamination from “insect, rodent, bird or vermin activity.” In more than 700 of those cases, inspectors found “fresh appearing mouse droppings.”
Dirty surfaces and unclean equipment, such as meat grinders, also make frequent appearances. In 752 cases since 2008, inspectors cited that food had been in contact with equipment, utensils or surfaces that had not been “properly sanitized and likely to contribute to contamination.”
Shoppers may also want to take a closer look at the refrigerators: In more than 260 cases, foods were not stored at the right temperatures, which can lead to food-borne illness. When such violations are found at grocery stores, they have to be rectified right away.
During an inspection at the Garden of Eden on 14th Street in 2009, an inspector ordered the store throw 66 pounds of prosciutto di Parma after it found the product hanging over a deli counter at 70ºF for an “undetermined period of time.” The costly lesson apparently didn’t stick: the following year, and the next year an inspection at the same location led to the destruction of more than 6 pounds of salami for similar reasons.
The award for most disgusting supermarket goes to…
Dating back to 2008, Met Foods on Fulton Street in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, comes in at first place for the most serious violations, with a whopping 72 in all. Inspectors have found hundreds of mouse droppings, six mouse carcasses, and rodenticide on the bread shelves.
Cesar, a manager at the Met Foods on Fulton street who declined to give his last name, said that in order to keep the store clean and the vermin out of the basement, cleaning crews come in every day to keep the place as spotless as possible. A fumigator comes by every week, he said.
Manhattan’s worst offender is also a Met Foods outlet, on Amsterdam Avenue near 125th Street, with a total of 48 critical deficiencies, followed by the Gristedes on Third Ave. in Murray Hill, with a total of 44.
Best and worst chains
Trader Joe’s peppy workforce isn’t just throwing smiles: they also keep one of the cleanest grocery store chains in New York City, with only one critical deficiency reported, at its Sixth Ave. location, since 2008.
By far the scummiest chain, as measured by health inspector citations, is Associated, a network of independently operated stores with more than 130 outlets in the metropolitan area: Over the past five years, state inspectors have cited its member stores for 739 critical deficiencies. The silver medal goes to two other franchise-style networks: Key Food, with 668 violations, followed by C-Town with 447.
Joe Estrada, 72, the manager of the Associated Supermarket on 14th St. and Eighth Ave. in Chelsea, said that inspectors come often, and always unannounced. Standing in front of the certificate that proves the store passed its inspection on May 13, 2013, without any serious violations, he acknowledged that in the past the store has seen violations — five, since 2008.
“It’s been 20 years,” he said. “We’re not going to be perfect all the time.”
He said that an exterminator usually comes twice a week to keep the rats and mice at bay. But the store has been cited for having not having a sink for employees to wash their hands in the kitchen, warm cold cuts and (inevitably) rodent droppings.
Cleanest and dirtiest neighborhoods
Access to fresh food is so rare in East New York that the city offers special tax incentives to get grocery stores selling fresh food to open in the Brooklyn neighborhood. The neighborhood needs all the help it can get. The nine supermarkets in zip code 11208 have seen 189 critical deficiencies in the last five years. Also grungy: midtown West, where eight supermarkets have been hit with 151 violations. In Highbridge and Morrisania in the Bronx — zip code 10456 — inspectors found 128 critical deficiencies in the past five years.
Shoppers seeking cleaner aisles and counters should head for Queens, where markets in Astoria, Richmond Hill, Kew Gardens, Woodside, Addisleigh Park and Queens Village have nearly spotless records. Stores in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn and Manhattan’s West Village also score high.
So now what?
The supermarket industry argues that in the fierce competition of the marketplace, cleaner grocery stores will prevail. Jay Peltz, vice president of public affairs at the trade group Food Industry Alliance, said that because the market is so competitive, “you have to operate a clean store.” The Food Industry Alliance represents many of New York state’s major supermarket chains, including C-Town, Pathmark and Shoprite.
“Our member stores have been in substantial compliance with the law,” Peltz says.
The state gives them lots of encouragement. Morrissey, the spokesman for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, said that grocery stores hit with violations have to clean up their act — otherwise, they can expect “progressive legal action including civil penalties, license revocation and injunctive action.”
The state revoked a dozen licenses across the state in 2012, said Morrissey, and a few more in 2013.
When violations are recorded, inspectors return a few months afterward to check on the progress. If a store keeps failing its inspection fines can go up to a calculated total of $1,200 per critical deficiency and $200 for minor infractions.
Robert Gravani, a food science professor at Cornell University and the director of the National Good Agricultural Practices Program, said he hopes that shoppers will stop going to a particular store if they notice serious violations or apparent health hazards.
Besides having the effect of grossing people out, the critical deficiencies can lead to some serious health consequences, Gravani said. The lack of hot water for employees to wash their hands, for example, can bring bacteria to the food they’re handling. Those bacteria can lead to food-borne illnesses.
Gravani suggests social media has helped keep store managers on their best behavior. “All of that publicity,” he said, “has tremendous consequences.”
When shoppers see something dirty in a store, Gravani continued, they should tell managers at or even call the Department of Agriculture and Markets and voice their complaints.
“Some things out there,” said Gravani, “are really easy to take care of.”
Sebastien Malo contributed reporting.