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Do bulk bins every get cleaned?

Maybe someone in the industry can respond. Do bulk bins every get cleaned? Or do they just keep dumping in new stuff? I've always been hesitant to get things from these, thinking that if it was contaminated even once, the germs just stay there forever. Thank you.

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  1. i can only speak to what i've witnessed as a consumer, but i've never seen them cleaned, just refilled. i get really skeeved out by people sticking their hands directly into bins instead of using scoops or tongs, so i only buy bulk foods from the wall-mounted reservoirs that rely on gravity to dispense the goods :)

    1. I never thought about this before. That being said, if they were never cleaned, dust and debris would accumulate pretty quickly and be obvious (think home fridge veggie bin). So I think it's safe to say that if the bins appear clean and are not sticky, they must be cleaned regularly.

      1. lets assume they never get cleaned. Now, if they just keep adding to the bin, and people take fromt the top.........well, it gets cleaned one customer at a time! maybe we shouldnt have gone down this road?

        anyways, you're probably right. Those bins are probably way dirtier and contaminated as say a package of peanut butter cookies!

        1. Now that you mention it, I don't see them cleaned that much. My guess would be once or twice a year, when things were really slow. (Or the health inspector writes them up of course)

          1 Reply
          1. re: coll

            Of course you don't see them cleaned. I'm sure they pull them at a time when customers aren't trying to get at them.

          2. here is an analogy: If you have a car that uses a lot of oil, and you have to add a quart every week, do you ever really need to "change" the oil?

            1 Reply
            1. re: nkeane

              As a mechanic's kid that drove cars like that, I can honestly say "Yes!"
              You must occasionally perform oil changes to help get rid of the debris and broken down oil before it damages the engine. It also gives you the chance to check for other problems.
              Back on topic, I stick to the gravity fed dispensers, not only to reduce the chance of cross contamination, but they tend to hold less and get refreshed more often than the oil drum sizes.

            2. Yes they do. I worked at a large natural foods company and they were on a regular cleaning schedule and then cleaned as needed between the regular times. Scoops/tongs were removed and cleaned daily, often times more. Drip trays (for honey/syrup/peanut butter) too. This was a thankless endeavor. You basically need a babysitter to watch the things all day since customers never seem to think that "their" hands are dirty.

              It is easiest to do housekeeping in those areas when the store is closed, which is why you seldom see it being done. Just trying to restock is frustrating, since customers can't seem to resist sticking their hands in the box of stock - seem to treat it like a cocktail party.

              That said, after witnessing the appalling lack of hygiene and common sense exhibited by the public, I only purchase from gravity bins. I will buy items to be shelled or boiled from bins with scoops. I purchase nothing that is from a level that toddlers can reach...

              1. i'm glad to see that some of my fellow Hounds share my "gravity dispensers only" policy. i honestly think stores should do away with the other ones...i see children AND adults sticking their hands in them all the time. it's just nasty.

                8 Replies
                1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                  Amen! I was just at Whole Foods today. No complaints at all with the cleanliness of the store itself, they have plenty of staff, etc...but the customers unfortunately are pigs. I never try samples at the store because of how people handle them. GROSS! And it's so true, they seem to think THEIR bare hands are clean, and of course those of their children too!

                  1. re: poptart

                    Anyone who partakes of unattended samples of cheese and whatnot at grocery stores is gambling with their health in my opinion. Same with most of the salad and hot bar goods that are within reach of small children.

                    1. re: taos

                      I really think that's a bit of an exaggeration for most healthy adults. We are exposed to bacteria and other things all day long whether we like it or not. A cheese sample is unlikely to be a big risk. I can't think of any salad bar or hot bar that a small child could reach so I really don't see a risk there either. Obviously I think there are judgement calls to be made on an individual basis but I would generally trust a place like Whole Foods or other reputable markets... that goes for bulk bins too.

                      1. re: virtualguthrie

                        Of course it's an exaggeration. Still, I'm not going to risk catching a cold or intestinal bug by picking up a piece of cheese or some food from a salad bar that I've just seen a snotty-handed toddler stick his hand into.

                        At my supermarket the salad bar is positioned perfectly so that a 5 year old can reach into it (OK not exactly a toddler). And I've seen plenty of adults reach into the food bins and take samples with their bare hands, place right into a baby's mouth, then double dip again.

                        This goes beyond the usual bacteria we're exposed to every day.

                        I don't think any one store is more reputable than any other. It's the customers that spread the germs, despite the best practices of the store.

                      2. re: taos

                        there was a day I would have argued with you...but not any more.

                        We were out of town, and stopped to get some sandwiches at the local (VERY highly-regarded) grocery chain, who I won't name here. There were some cheese samples out, and I tried one. Okay, not great -- keep going.

                        By morning, I was feeling awful, and by the time we got to the bowl game we were in town to see, I was a wreck. I saw half the game from the monitors in the ladies' room (amid some not-very-subtle comments from the janitorial crew about the damned drunks at the stadium...but I was a little too busy at the time to give a retort.)

                        We were all together for several days, the rest of the family was completely fine...but they'd not had the cheese sample. I realize that it's not a sure thing...but the evidence would suggest that it was, indeed, the cheese.

                        I still sample and eat (a lot of) cheese...but only if there's a person giving out the samples and I see them cut it from the wheel.

                    2. re: goodhealthgourmet

                      "Excuse me here is the wax paper to grab the rolls"....followed by"I'm only touching the ones I am buying."

                      Hence jfood rarely buys anything from the roll bins. He has even seen a guy wipe his nose and then reach in. Absolutely disgusting.

                      And add jfood to the list of gravity only dispensers. He will NOT ever buy anything from the bins with the scoops. Now let's think about the scoop. Everyone does not like people touching the food, but the communal scoop is OK. Not exactly a parallel position.

                      1. re: jfood

                        Agreed. Scoops + nut allergy = possible ugly situation. Not to mention cooties.

                        1. re: jfood

                          I don't use the paper because it is wasteful but I turn the bag inside out and wrap my hand in it as one would do cleaning up after a dog on a walk perhaps.

                      2. I guess my earlier post got removed because I mentioned the name of a well known food store, so this time I won't mention names. But this is a very well known store, I think it's national. I happened, one day, to see a cockroach running along the inside of the glass cabinet where the cookies, rolls, bagels etc are there for self service. IIt got me thinking about the bulk bins. I began wondering if they could be infested with roaches, and had this vision of a free for all at night after the lights go out, so now, I can't bring myself to use the bins. Has anyone else thought about this?

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: susabella

                          Did you report your sighting, and if so, what was the response?

                          1. re: amyzan

                            No, I should reported it, but made a mental note never to buy cookies and rolls from an open bin again. Cockroaches are disgusting, I would rather see rats running around than a cockroach.

                          2. re: susabella

                            I've taken home a bag of infested rice from the bulk bins. When I went back that same day to return the item their response was less than satisfactory. I haven't purchased anything from a bulk bin since, either from the store in question or somewhere else.

                          3. I've seen the bins at my local health food store being pulled for cleaning before. As well, there have been times when I've been looking for something and they've said the bin is in the back being cleaned, then they've brought me out a big bag of the product to scoop from.

                            1. My local greengrocer has bulk bins with various staples and when I visit the city one of my favourite stores is a shop that sells a whole plethora of health foods in bins and has a great range of herbs and spices. I have never even thought about this. Bridge of the Juggler...I don't know whether to thank you or pretend I never read this!

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: marielee

                                "Bridge of the Juggler...I don't know whether to thank you or pretend I never read this!"
                                ignorance is bliss, right? ;)

                                1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                  Yes, buuuuuuuuuuuuuut
                                  Knowledge = power

                                  Today, I asked the gentleman who happened to be filling a few of the bins how often the bins are cleaned and if this only depends on whether or not comes across an empty bin. Unfortunately (or fortunately) he disclosed *he* never cleaned them, but he didn't know about other clerks. Yikes! But I did have a feeling I would get this answer. On my way out, I spotted one of the floor managers and relayed to him my earlier conversation. He said bin cleaning was on the list of things should be done, but also admitted that it was hard to keep up on. I expressed to him my concern and even went to far as to suggest a rotating schedule (side work for servers). If nothing else, perhaps the bins will be a higher priority for the next few days. Hey I tried, time will tell!

                                  1. re: enbell

                                    oh, i'm with you on the knowledge = power, i was just trying to make marielee feel better :) it's funny that you asked at your store today - i made a note to myself to ask tomorrow when i stop at mine. great minds...

                                    1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                      No, I know; I got the drift of yor joke :) I only elaborated on my experience to perhaps gently nudge others to do something similar. Perhaps we'll start a grass roots movement to clean out those bins! Perhaps if we get a few more to join the movement, we'll have enough for buttons, and next - bumper stickers :)

                              2. Strange timing, there was just an article in the SF Chronicle about the use of some kind of fluoride to clean the bulk bins. I won't attempt to quote because I didn't get the name of it, but they were saying that it was not considered a good choice for the job that there were other substances used in Europe that were less toxic. Not sure if that means they are cleaned often with this substance. It may be that some are never cleaned.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: Missmoo

                                  Missmoo, i assume this is the article you were talking about..


                                  while it's interesting, i think you actually misunderstood. the sulfuryl fluoride they're discussing in the article is used as a fumigant on stored food commodities to prevent infestation in places like processing plants & storage facilities/warehouses...it's not what they use to clean the bulk bins at the grocery store.

                                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                    That's what I get for skimming! Since it said bulk I went right to the bulk bins in stores. Thanks for the clarification.

                                    1. re: Missmoo

                                      no worries...i've certainly done that before ;)

                                2. I more concerned with the food in the bins. I see customers brazenly dining out of the bulk bins (and why oh why does it seem more prevalent in the more affluent areas? is that how the rich stay rich: bin dining for free?) . I've actually confronted them when I'm close by with a "well -- can you please point out which of the contents you didn't touch? I'm not interested in PAYING for dirty food".

                                  1. as mentioned earlier...a customer won't necessarily see the bins being cleaned: core-staff typically arrives hours before a store opens...all major cleaning is done after closing or pre-opening

                                    and, second the observation, customers and their children can be pigs

                                    1. Depends on the bulk bins.

                                      I've seen grocery bins lined with plastic bag, and supposedly the bags would be changed out but I can't swear that that happens.

                                      Similarly, I've seen grocery bulk bins made to look like sizeable wooden barrels, but the product is actually contained in a much shallower plastic tray. Great idea - does it actually get changed? Who can say?

                                      In restaurant practice, where I live, all items out of their original packing (or opened), must be marked with opening date and expiration date, plus standards for which items cannot be kept near which other items are very strungent. Inspectors enforce these regulations.

                                      5 Replies
                                      1. re: wayne keyser

                                        Wow - after reading these posts I will never buy from a bulk bin again! I will never scoop anything, I will never grab rolls, cookies, donuts, etc from the self-service stations! Yuck!

                                        1. re: OOliver

                                          I still believe the gravity bins are your friend; perhaps I am oblivious tothe obvious....hope not

                                        2. re: wayne keyser

                                          my local grocery store that has a large bulk section, has large paperboard barrels lined with plastic bags. I asked about the filling/cleaning policy and was told that they do not refill the containers but swap out a new, sealed bag. Went on to say that even the barrels themselves get replaced yearly, and that any of the remaining contents in the bottom of the bags when they swap them( manager said its usually a few pounds.....hard for customers to reach all the way to the bottom) gets donated to the local food shelter! I now feel really good about using these bins. Now to work on the other customers and their (mis)use of the bulk bins!:-)

                                          1. re: nkeane

                                            Last year at the now gone :-( Bell Market on 24th St. in S.F., I got some trail mix, from a high up plastic dispenser as I had done many many times before. When I got home it had a lot of fly larva or something like that in it. I returned it immediately. I never bought the mix again, as I had no way of know if they cleaned the container or just dumped the contents and refilled it again.

                                            IMO, buying from a bin or a dispenser at very busy store, like Rainbow or Whole Foods doesn't mean a thing. I think that since they sell so much, they probably just keep dumping in more and more and never take the time to clean the containers.

                                            YUCK - why did I read this ... I am headed to Rainbow right now to replenish my flours, berries, nuts etc....

                                            1. re: Canthespam

                                              Pantry moth larva is in many things and impossible to avoid. Their presence does not indicate lack of cleaning the bins. It happens no matter how frequently the bins are cleaned...and reputable stores make every effort to prevent, curtail and cleanup any out breaks.

                                        3. I worked at a card shop with bulk candy bins. The bins were never cleaned and really gross. Full of moths!! We used to just dump the new stuff in. Even worse... people (adults and kids) would just stick their hands in the bins to serve themselves. We were obligated to tell them Use The Scoops. But, quite honestly, the scoops were never washed either.... I never ate the candy!!!

                                          1. Wow, I'm continually amazed at the negative responses to this topic.

                                            Bulk bins are simply a great way to buy goods like grains, pasta, oils, honey, herbs, the list goes on. Saves a lot on packaging, especially if you bring your own containers which a lot of people do, and many times it's cheaper too. I think it's worth mentioning again that reputable stores (like Rainbow Grocery in SF for example) have a regular schedule for cleaning bulk bins and are very diligent about it, I absolutely guarantee it. As for contamination from customers, I really think this is such a minor problem that it isn't worth a second thought. I mean really, are we all becoming like Bob in Groundhog's day? Do you really think there is a real risk of getting sick from something like another customer touching something that has been in a bulk bin, which really doesn't happen that often anyway? Honestly, what you don't know won't hurt you. Ok, I'm rambling but really, bulk bins are a great way to cut down on packaging waste and it's about time we all start making an effort in whatever way we can...so please by all means BUY IN BULK!

                                            BTW I purchase items from bulk bins, I eat foods and dairy products past their sell by dates, I'll eat pizza if it sat out all night... and I've NEVER had a problem, and furthermore I rarely even get common colds and such.

                                            3 Replies
                                            1. re: virtualguthrie

                                              Yeah, the OP and so many of the responses just strike me as a little extreme. I'm sorry if that hurts anyone's feelings, but some common sense is in order. Certainly, don't buy from a store where the bins aren't cleaned, but don't eliminate the bulk bins from your shopping altogether if the shop is reputable and follows a cleaning schedule. I used to work in the grocery industry, and as a result I'm careful (but reasonable, I hope) about food. I don't sample unless the item is supervised. I don't usually eat foods that won't be washed or cooked unless they're in gravity bins. Beyond that, I shop bulk quite a bit because I know that effort is made to keep a clean store, whether that's self service bakery, bulk, or yes, even packaged goods.

                                              The recent revelations about the peanut processing facility in GA should have everyone aware of these issues being a problem in the food supply. Lack of regulation, I daresay, in varying degrees, probably over much of the US, lets unscrupulous people get away with dangerous practices. It's good to know where the food you buy comes from, how it's stored, but let's practice some common sense. There is evidence that many of the auto immune illnesses arise because people are no longer exposed to bacteria as babies and children. There are limits at which germ awareness becomes germ phobia.

                                              1. re: amyzan

                                                Thanks for backing me up on this one. I thought I was gonna be flamed into submission for sure. I'm certainly not trying to hurt anyone's feelings either but I think it's important to be reasonable when it comes to this sort of thing.

                                                1. re: virtualguthrie

                                                  I'm with you two. Bulk is a great way to save on all this packaging that's going in the landfill.

                                                  As far as the issues of roaches or other pests--if people think all the same stuff doesn't happen behind closed doors in the production of supposedly "clean" packaged food, they're kidding themselves.

                                                  Agreed that customers sticking hands into bins is gross, but we are exposed to people's germs constantly anyway, and if we're not, our immune system will get sluggish.

                                            2. ok, so i *finally* remembered to ask this week when i was at my local WFM. apparently they're required to clean each bin only ONCE A YEAR, so they have them on a rotating schedule, and do a certain number each month. i think i'm definitely glad i stick to the gravity dispensers.

                                              1. There are alot of things that can harbor bacteria. I've been in food service more on than off for 35 years, here's a couple of things to watch.
                                                Ice machine ice bins, some states/counties require only a 4 month drain out and sanitize. Beleive me there is mold that can grow on ice.
                                                Ice tea dispensers. Iced tea will start going bad in 36 hours if not refrigerated in about 4 days it will start growing a mold that will make you very sick. Maybe things have changed but Wendy's is the only place that uses a sanitary liner and discards leftover tea at closing every day.
                                                Don't use the open condiments at conveinience stores, Please Don't!
                                                And as mentioned by someone above, don't take anything from a non attended sample tray anywhere.

                                                1. Ok, I'll disclose right away that I am not a germaphobe. That said, is the item from the bulk bin something that you are going to cook or eat raw?

                                                  If it's an item to be cooked, I'm less worried. I've had weevils in my pantry, soaked morels in salt water to evict the native fauna, and cut off the wormy portion of the corn cob too many times to worry about a bit of uninvited wildlife.

                                                  If you are worried, ask about the policy for cleaning at your store. Maybe mention this thread to the manager. If you don't like the response, ask again periodically and let them know that you *still* aren't buying the bulk goods and are advising friends to do the same.

                                                  I'd really like to see some metrics on this. How much food related illness is due to bulk bins?

                                                  1. There was just a piece on health hazards in supermarkets on the Dr. Oz show. One of the experts said the most common thing they find in the bottom of bulk food bins is fake fingernails.

                                                    5 Replies
                                                    1. re: greygarious

                                                      OMG, I just caught that episode too.
                                                      It really made you think about all those 20 people touching your groceries that you didn't know about, Ugh!
                                                      I actually stopped shopping from those bins when about 5 yrs ago , I saw a little girl grab probably a $5 chunk of bulk chocolate , licked it then her Mom put it back, disgusting!

                                                        1. re: afullpantry

                                                          I have confidence in the power of a regularly-challenged immune system, so I don't worry about any of it. I was just pointing it out for those who do. Then again, I don't buy the kind of food that attracts children.

                                                        2. re: greygarious

                                                          I never considered fake fingernails.` I usually don't dig down to the bottom because I figure that's where the rodent droppings would settle.

                                                        3. In the markets where I shop (Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Heinen's - I'm in Cleveland) next to the bulk bins they usually have the same stuff in packaged form. I think that the packaged items are much fresher than the ones in the bulk bins, and they certainly haven't been contaminated by unclean 'gravity' bins or many filthy hands (one would hope). Very rarely do I look for an ingredient in the bulk bins that isn't available in a sealed package very near the bins.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: southernexpat

                                                            I have always felt that the pre-packaged stuff from the bulk bins at my nearby Fresh Market is actually the remnants from the bottom of the bin that they want to clean out before adding fresh stuff. I'm assuming this because there always seems to be a lot of the broken tidbit debris in these, much more than you'd get by scooping it out yourself.

                                                          2. My grandmother had a flour drawer/bin. It was in her cupboard and was a tin lined 'bin' that came out at an angle. I wish I could describe it better. Anyway, I am pretty sure she never cleaned it too much, she just dumped a 25 pound bag of flour in it when it was empty. I suppose the last 1/2 cup or so on the bottom stayed there. She's been gone now for for almost 23 years. She stopped using the flour drawer probably 10 or 15 years before she died. She just didn't do that kind of cooking anymore. I remember it from when I was quite young.

                                                            3 Replies
                                                            1. re: John E.

                                                              I wish I had something like that in my kitchen! We bought a giant bag of flour and really have nowhere to put it (my husband is on a breadmaking kick). I have containers on the kitchen counter that hold 1-2 lbs, but what do I do with the other 23? Modern kitchens aren't made for that kind of scratch cooking, it seems.

                                                              1. re: khh1138

                                                                head down to the pet department and get one of the rolling pet food bins -- mine is a giant plastic bin with a gasket-sealed lid -- and it's on wheels!

                                                                Mine rolls neatly under the bottom shelf of my pantry (didn't even have to move the shelf - I got lucky!) It seems to do a very good job keeping the boys' kibble from going stale, so it should work well for bulk purchases of flour, rice, etc.

                                                                Then you can just use a scoop to refill the canisters on the counter.

                                                                1. re: sunshine842

                                                                  A giant pet food container! You are a lifesaver. Thank you for this great idea!

                                                            2. The only products I would use from a bulk bin are those which will be thoroughly cooked, but even commercially packaged foods can contain contaminates. Then there's the fresh produce, which, no matter how nice it looks, has been picked through. Germs are everywhere in the environment.

                                                              1. I used to work at a health food store and we'd wash the bulk bins out when they got visibly dirty. But I still won't buy anything in bulk after some of the things I saw there:
                                                                - people using their hands to scoop stuff out
                                                                - someone once dumped a bunch of cigarette butts in the granola (guess they were pissed off at the store?)
                                                                -weevils in the stuff that didn't sell very well.
                                                                - major cross-contamination. Never use those things if you have allergies. Although I still can't forget the stupid woman who screamed at me that we'd almost killed her kid who had a fatal peanut allergy. She bought him some hazelnuts. The bin was right next to the loose peanuts and well, you can figure it out from there...

                                                                1 Reply
                                                                1. re: hal2010

                                                                  I worked in a health food store for 5 years and never saw any of those things. We had a regular cleaning schedule for the bins, we cleaned the scoops every night and we rotated the stock every time they were filled.
                                                                  The worst thing I ever saw was the occasional poaching of the bins by grazers.... like myself and the other employees.

                                                                2. Im a bulk manager and they do get cleaned but it doesnt appear because the oils from the products just dont come off ive tried everything lemons, acidic cleaner meant for tough oil and such but nothing works

                                                                  1. The little secret is the 'bulk bins' only holds a relatively small amount of product in relation to the size of the bin. If you stuck a chop stick down to the bottom of the bins you'd see the depth is only about 12".
                                                                    Product that sells quickly is going to be moved in enough time so it won't get spoiled. Product that moves slowly is in bins that are sometimes only a few inches deep.