Small stores that open early and stay open late are called convenience stores for a reason. When you need a basic ingredient or a quick lunch or snack, stopping in a mini-mart can be much easier and faster than making a special trip to a grocery store or restaurant. However, you may not be convinced that buying food at your local gas station or mini-mart is a good idea. Is the food safe? How do you know?

The fact is, apart from visible spoilage or contamination, you might not be able to tell. The best way to be sure is to look for signs that the market follows food safety guidelines. Here’s what to look for:

National Registry Certification

Reputable convenience stores certify their managers and employees on food safety practices. When a manager completes the National Registry course, he or she receives a certificate with the National Registry of Food Safety Professionals seal. Look for the certificate on display or look for the decal on a window near the entry. This certification shows that the manager and employees have training on food safety and are committed to best practices.

Look for the Gloves

Employees who are working at both the cash register and a food preparation station should wear single-use gloves when touching food. After handling money or credit cards, they should put on a fresh pair of gloves before returning to food preparation. Did the employee take your payment while wearing gloves and then turn to handle food using the same gloves? Not good!

Hand Washing

Employees who handle food should be trained in proper hand washing technique. They should wash their hands after using the bathroom, when they first start a shift, immediately before touching food, after coughing, sneezing, smoking, or eating, after they’ve handled money or taken out the trash. Keep an eye out for employees who cough or touch their face and don’t wash their hands after.

Labeled Food

All prepared food should be labeled with what it is, when it was made, and when it expires or passes the point of freshness. If you buy ready to eat food from a convenience store, check for these three things on a label to ensure the freshness date hasn’t passed, before you buy.

Hot Foods Are Hot

If you buy a hot food such as a hot dog or fried chicken from a convenience store, it should be hot – not warm or room temperature. When the temperature of hot food drops below 135 degrees, bacteria can multiply. The convenience store should keep hot foods in a warmer that keeps the temperature consistently above 135 degrees.

Cold Foods Are Cold

Cold foods should be held at 41 degrees or lower so bacteria can’t grow. Foods that should be refrigerated should never be kept at room temperature. If you pick up a sandwich or salad, it should be cold to the touch. Frozen foods such as ice cream should be held at 0 degrees or lower. Ice cream should not feel soft in the container or package, and it should not show evidence of melting and refreezing (such as ice crystals on the packaging).

Basic Hygiene

A reputable convenience store will foster a culture of food safety that will be evident when you look around. Employees should be tidy and clean, and floors, displays and serving counters should be free of debris, crumbs, and spills. No one should be handling money or credit cards then handling food without first putting on gloves.

A local convenience store dedicated to food safety is a great place to grab a bite. Before you buy, look for their certificate or decal from the National Registry, and look for the telltale signs that the manager and staff are committed to a food safety culture.

C-Store Certification

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