These Are the Germiest Places in the Supermarket

You probably make grocery lists, clip coupons, and learn new recipes to make sure that you and your family are eating healthy. But no matter how many vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins are in your cart, your trips to the grocery store may still be compromising your health. The culprit? Your shopping cart — and all the other things you touch when you shop at your favorite supermarket.

According to a study by ReuseThisBag.com, you probably come into contact with millions of germs that could make you sick every time you head to the grocery store. To make matters worse, it doesn’t matter whether you shop at a traditional grocery store, a budget supermarket, a superstore, or even an upscale market.

Read on to check out the germiest places in the grocery store, from the slightly icky to the gag-inducing. You won’t believe which one came in at No. 1.

15. Your cart at an upscale grocery store

market cart and supermarket

Using a shopping cart at an upscale grocery store? You’re coming into contact with lots of bacteria. | iStock.com/Olegkalina

ReuseThisBag.com reports that a shopping cart at an upscale market has 28 colony-forming units of bacteria, or CFU, per square inch. (28 CFU is about the same amount of bacteria you’d find on the typical computer keyboard. When was the last time you scrubbed one of those?) The researchers found gram-positive rods, which are usually harmless, plus yeast and bacillus. So, not so bad. But it turns out that the kind of store you choose for your grocery shopping may determine the amount of germs you’re exposed to when you pull a cart from the corral.

14. Your cart at a superstore

lady shopping with a full filled cart in a supermarket

The shopping carts at a superstore have even more bacteria. | iStock.com/Freer Law

Case in point? ReuseThisBag.com reports that a shopping cart at a superstore has 1,006 CFU per square inch. That’s nearly three times the amount of bacteria researchers would expect to find on your kitchen counter. (And we all know that the countertop is one of the germiest places in your kitchen.) The researchers found gram-positive cocci, which can cause strep and staph infections, plus gram-negative rods, which are harmful and often antibiotic-immune. That sounds pretty scary, but the cart at your local superstore still exposes you to fewer bacteria than the shopping carts at other kinds of grocery stores. 

13. Your cart at a budget grocery store

Cart with products

The cart at a budget supermarket is even worse. | iStock.com/Shironosov

Ever gone to a budget grocery store to stretch your money further? Then brace yourself. ReuseThisBag.com reports that a shopping cart at a budget grocery store has 8,112 CFU per square inch. That’s almost 270 times more bacteria than you’d find on a toilet handle. (And at least you probably sanitize the toilet handle fairly regularly.) The researchers found that most CFUs are gram-positive rods, which are typically harmless, but they also found a healthy (so to speak) dose of harmful and antibiotic-immune gram-negative rods. However, the carts at a budget grocery store, for the record, aren’t even the worst offenders. 

12. Your cart at a traditional supermarket

shopping together

You’ll find the very germiest cart at a traditional supermarket. | iStock.com

Ready to get the details on the germiest cart you touch when grocery shopping? ReuseThisBag.com reports that the grocery cart at a traditional grocery store has 73,356 CFU per square inch. That’s 361 times more bacteria than what you’d find on a bathroom doorknob. Plus, the researchers found an overwhelming majority of gram-negative rods (harmful and often antibiotic-immune), along with some gram-positive rods. And what’s even worse? You touch the handle on your shopping cart repeatedly as you choose foods from around the store.

11. The child seat on the shopping cart

fresh food products in cart

The child seat may be the germiest part of the cart. | iStock.com/Shironosov

The Today Show talked to Charles Gerba, professor of microbiology and environmental sciences at the University of Arizona, to get the inside scoop on the germiest things at the supermarket. Gerba had a surprising fact that may make you think even harder about your shopping cart (if ReuseThisBag.com’s gross stats weren’t enough). Before you put your kid, your handbag, or even your produce into the child’s seat, you should really wipe down that part of the cart. Otherwise, you’ll expose yourself to all kinds of bacteria left behind by “drippy noses, drooling mouths, and leaky diapers.” Enough said.

10. The refrigerator doors at an upscale grocery store

Woman taking deep frozen food from a freezer

Doors on refrigerators at an upscale grocery are covered in dangerous bacteria. | iStock.com/Minerva Studio

The researchers did some similar comparisons for the refrigerator doors at the various kinds of grocery stores where Americans shop. Shoppers repeatedly reach for these door handles and pass whatever germs are already on their hands to the door (and on to the next person who wants to grab a bag of peas or a pack of tater tots). ReuseThisBag.com reports that the refrigerator doors at an upscale market have 10 CFU per square inch. That’s about the same amount of bacteria that you’d find on the bottom of your handbag. Less encouraging? The fact that they identified 100% of the bacteria on those doors as gram-positive cocci, which they’ve linked to skin infections, pneumonia, and blood poisoning.

9. The refrigerator doors at a budget grocery store

Various products in a supermarket

The refrigerator doors at a budget store have even more bacteria. | iStock.com/Adisa

As you probably expect, the refrigerator doors at the budget grocery store had a lot more bacteria than those at the upscale grocery store. In fact, they had 260 CFU per square inch. That’s five times the amount of bacteria that you’d find on an average pen. (Think about it: when was the last time you took a sanitizing wipe to each and every pen floating around your kitchen or your office?) Fortunately, researchers identified the vast majority of the bacteria on these doors as gram-positive rods, most of which are harmless to humans. 

8. The refrigerator doors at a superstore

Grocery store freezer

The doors at a superstore are even worse. | iStock.com/FredGoldstein

Things get worse when you handle the refrigerator doors at a superstore. Much, much worse. In fact, ReuseThisBag.com found that the refrigerator doors at a superstore have a whopping 33,340 CFU per square inch. If you can imagine it, that’s 1,235 times the amount of bacteria that’s hanging out on your smartphone. And we all know that our smartphones go with us everywhere, even to the restroom. Just like at the upscale market, researchers identified 100% of the bacteria on these doors as dangerous gram-positive cocci. 

7. The refrigerator doors at a traditional supermarket

Female shopper reaching product from freezer

You’ll find the refrigerator doors with the most bacteria at a traditional grocery store. | iStock.com/Gpointstudio

Once again, the traditional grocery store fares worst in the germ-fest. If you can, you probably want to sanitize your hands immediately after touching the handles on those refrigerator cases. ReuseThisBag.com reports that the traditional supermarket’s refrigerator doors have 326,695 CFU per square inch, nearly 18 times more bacteria than what you’d find on a pet toy. (And you really, really don’t want to know where Fido or Fluffy has dragged that chew toy.) About 64% of these bacteria were gram-positive rods, but researchers also found sizable populations of more-dangerous gram-positive cocci.

6. The meat and seafood counter

Seller and customer in fish store

The meat and seafood counters are other areas of the supermarket covered in bacteria. | iStock.com/JackF

Ready to get out of the refrigerator section of the grocery store? That’s probably a good plan. But Gerba reports that there are other sections of the grocery store — like the meat and seafood counters — where you’re likely to encounter huge populations of bacteria. He advises that you should steer clear of torn or leaking packages. (Germs can enter through those openings. Plus, bacteria-laden liquids can exit and spill all over your cart and your other groceries.) He also recommends double-bagging any items you buy at the meat or seafood counter, and keeping them separate from produce, in order to avoid cross-contamination. 

5. Produce bought at a traditional grocery store

woman holding a bag of fruit

The produce you buy at a traditional supermarket comes covered in bacteria. | iStock.com/Choreograph

Even the fresh vegetables and fruits you buy while grocery shopping aren’t immune to all the bacteria and germs multiplying around the store. In fact, researchers found that it was more likely the produce tested at various grocery stores was covered in harmful bacteria than the refrigerator doors. But for once, the traditional grocery store is the best, not the worst, at keeping the bacteria count low. ReuseThisBag.com reports that the produce at a traditional supermarket has 1,940 CFU per square inch. That doesn’t sound so bad! Just keep in mind that it’s about 746 times more bacteria than what you’d find on a car’s steering wheel. But fortunately, researchers found that the bacteria on produce at these stores was 100% yeast.

4. Produce bought at a superstore

Woman smelling green leaf

Vegetables and fruits at a superstore have even more bacteria. | iStock.com

The produce you buy at a superstore comes with a lot more bacteria than the veggies and fruits you buy at a traditional grocery store. (But not nearly as much bacteria as the produce from other types of stores.) At a superstore, you can expect your produce to have 6,327 CFU per square inch. That sounds bad, and, to be fair, ReuseThisBag.com calculates that that’s about 253 times the amount of bacteria on a video game controller. Pretty gross, if you ask us (or the people who never, ever sanitize their Wiimotes or PlayStation controllers), especially considering that 100% of this bacteria was gram-positive cocci. 

3. Produce bought at an upscale grocery store

The produce at an upscale supermarket is even worse. | iStock.com/MonkeyBusinessImages

Next up, we have the produce you buy at an upscale grocery store. ReuseThisBag.com reports that these fruits and veggies have 3,310,000 CFU per square inch — a massive jump from the bacteria counts we saw at the superstore and the traditional grocery store. In fact, 3,310,000 CFU per square inch is nearly 11 times the amount of bacteria you’d find on your pet’s food bowl. You can expect both gram-positive rods and gram-positive cocci all over your produce if you shop at this kind of store. We’re not sure how to make you feel better about that one. However, ReuseThisBag.com explains that the produce at upscale supermarkets probably carries more traces of bacteria than “conventional” foods because of the lack of chemicals and the natural methods that farmers used to keep their produce clean. 

2. Produce bought at a budget grocery store

Woman grocery shopping in a supermarket

You’ll find the very germiest produce at a budget supermarket. | iStock.com/Minerva Studio

The very worst place to buy produce if you’re worried about the amount of bacteria you’re hauling home? The budget grocery store. ReuseThisBag.com reports that vegetables and fruits bought at this kind of supermarket have 5,666,667 CFU per square inch. That’s nearly three times the amount of bacteria you’d find on a toothbrush holder — the same bathroom fixture that you used to share with three roommates and probably never cleaned. Researchers found that at a budget grocery store, the produce has sizable populations not only of gram-positive rods, but also of gram-positive cocci and gram-negative rods. Both gram-negative rods and gram-positive cocci can carry parasites and pathogens, and gram-positive cocci alone are responsible for a third of all bacterial infections that affect humans.

1. Touch screens at checkout

Mother Paying For Family Shopping At Checkout

One of the germiest spots in the whole store? The touchscreens at checkout. | iStock.com/BowdenImages

Headed to checkout? Your exposure to bacteria and germs isn’t over — not by a long shot. Gerba tells Today that a disturbing 50% of self-checkout touchscreens sampled had fecal bacteria on them. Some even had MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a staph bacteria resistant to many types of antibiotics. In fact, he warns shoppers, “There are actually more antibiotic–resistant bacteria on these screens than in a hospital.” And don’t think that you’re out of harm’s way if you let a cashier ring you up instead. The touchscreen for credit and debit card payments at a standard checkout line probably has the same kind of bacteria all over it. The moral of the story? Use hand sanitizer immediately after you finish checking out — and as much as you can while you’re shopping, too.

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