Food safety 'horror stories' open can of worms.
What do you look for in a grocery store?
Mice feces, cigarette butts, roaches, used medical syringes and sloppy garbage probably isn't on the list. Yet that's the kind of thing that Storm Lake grocers Brian Baumhover of Fareway and Denny Hartogh of Hy-Vee, along with their peers across the state, are seeing come in on returned beverage cans.
So these days, picking up a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk often comes with a hot political issue as well, as the future of Iowa deposit law is debated in the halls of the Statehouse - not to mention the frozen foods section of the local grocery.
"It's dirty, messy material coming into food stores," Hartogh said. "In today's industry we have to consider all the fresh products we prepare on site in the store. It's a real contradiction in terms to have contaminated materials being brought into the same store."
The two Storm Lake stores have found plenty of support for their opinions among their customers. Each put out a petition about 10 days ago calling for the state to change its current can deposit systems to stop requiring groceries to serve as redemption points.
At Storm Lake Hy-Vee, over 1,500 signatures have been compiled in 10 days, and about 75 percent of customers walking in the store are choosing to sign, Hartogh said.
Fareway estimates that over 700 signatures have been volunteered, representing the majority of customer traffic. Hy-Vee closed the petition yesterday. Fareway will continue for a few more days, Baumhover said.
Statewide, grocers feel that proponents of the current deposit law system are painting a false picture of the situation in supermarkets.
"Those who want to keep the current deposit system are making it sound as though cans and bottles come back to the supermarket in pristine condition," said Jerry Feagle, president of the Iowa Grocery Industry Association. "If only that were true."
Consumers have brought cans into groceries containing everything from rodents to urine, Feagle said. Baumhover confirms it. "I could tell some real horror stories. One time I found a used sanitary napkin in a bag with cans brought back in. A lot of times what comes in basically is garbage."
Those kind of materials have no place in stores that have a trust to deliver safe foods, Feagle said. While supermarkets have tight controls on purity and handling of the foods that come in through their own storerooms, they can't control what comes in on returned cans.
"The petition has been very positively received in the store. I think people agree that bringing cans to the grocery may be the most convenient option, but food safety is important to everyone. The cans will not be taken out of food stores until there is an alternative," Hartogh said.
Those who support the current can deposit system say that changing the rules will set Iowa back a generation, leaving unwanted cans to litter the ditches.
Baumhover said that grocers aren't looking to compromise the environment. "When people realize what we are really asking, there are very few who don't agree. A few people have told me they are worried about the ditches, but I remind them that we have trained ourselves over the last 20 years to recycle - it's a different mindset today.
"We have recycling bins in my home, and my 4 and 6 year olds know what they mean. Just the other day, my daughter yelled at me because I put something in the wrong recycling bin."
The Fareway manager suggests that people could easily become used to taking cans directly to the county recycling center.
"If a deposit wasn't charged, the Harold Rowley Center could sort out those cans, which have an actual material value of about a penny and a half each. We could let that revenue stay with them to support the recycling and landfill efforts in the counties, and this would perhaps hold our garbage bills down as regulations get stiffer and stiffer," he said.
More charities could also take advantage of can collections, some have suggested. The local Genesis Work Activity program for challenged employees also is available as a can return site.
Petitions from groceries statewide will be compiled in hopes of swaying lawmakers as they arrive for the new session after the first of the year.
One of the most compelling arguments should be that there are 250 known foodborne illnesses identified by the Centers for Disease Control, Feagle said. Inspectors come to store sites only once or twice a year, but the issue is a daily one for those who work with the cans. "When it comes to safeguarding our food supply, the buck stops with the grocer," Feagle said.
"When I talk to people looking at the petition, what I often hear is, 'Brian, I don't blame you. We never really thought it should be this way,'" Baumhover said.