Buying foods like beans and grains from bulk bins can save you money, but Chowhounds have raised a good question about the practice: Just how often do the bins get cleaned out?
“There are no federal standards for cleaning or maintenance of bulk bins,” says Jennifer Foley, the marketing and membership manager at Berkshire Co-op Market in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
“Cleaning frequency and procedures are dictated by health departments at the state and sometimes even the municipal level, so [they] vary,” confirms Libba Letton, a spokesperson for Whole Foods Market. Chicago’s code, for example, requires that scoops and bins be “cleaned and sanitized” every 12 hours, while San Francisco County code doesn’t call for any specific regimen particular to bulk bins, just that “The floors, sidewalks, ceilings, furniture, receptacles, utensils, implements and machinery of every … place where food is … stored commercially in opened or unopened containers, sold or distributed shall at all times be kept in a healthful and in a sanitary condition.”
Letton says that Whole Foods’ company policy is that “at the very least, the bins will be cleaned once every four weeks, when they are all emptied and their contents weighed for inventory purposes.” She says they are cleaned with a National Organic Standards–approved sanitizer, rinsed thoroughly, and dried. The scoops are cleaned at least once daily. She says the markets also have a third-party firm perform monthly inspections to look for proper food safety and hygiene.
Since bulk bins aren’t consistently regulated, it’s best to buy your bulk items from a grocer that you trust and that has good turnover, and to ask how the store maintains the section if you are concerned. You can also evaluate a store’s bulk section yourself with an eye for the following:
• In most bulk departments you’ll see both scoop and gravity-fed bins (those are the ones that dispense product into your bag when you open them from the bottom). Buy from the gravity-fed bins when you can, because they force the stock to be constantly rotated by dispensing the older stuff first. They also minimize people’s contact with the food since you don’t have to reach into them.
• Look at the tops of the bins to make sure there is no dust on them.
• If your store is using scoop bins, try to scope out the condition of the product at the bottom (look through the side or from the front at eye level). If the store is just putting new stock on top of the old stock without cleaning, you’ll see a buildup of crushed old product. “If you see over an inch or two of this old ‘dust’ then you know that nobody has taken the time to clean the bins in a while,” says Foley.