Bread on open shelves with ‘flu around

People are dying of ‘flu. Vaccine stocks are said to be running low. Hospitals are reporting increased numbers of cases of serious resipratory illnesses. The Dept of Health is running a campaign to increase awareness of the ease with which respiratory viruses spread, exhorting us to use tissues and wash our hands frequently. Time to panic? No of course not, but going around the shops you can’t help notice the number of people coughing, often without taking any care not to spread their germs.

So I can’t understand why Waitrose and some other shops have their ‘speciality’ breads and pastries on open display. Anyone standing near the bread counter in Waitrose and coughing into the air is going to leave their contamination on the bread which the next person is going to buy and eat. As soon as I saw the set-up when the store opened I decided I wouldn’t buy any unwrapped bakery items from the open shelves.

Am I being paranoid? I hope not: just being someone who prefers not to be ill if possible. And the solution’s simple – just put the bread and buns in clear perspex containers with lift-up lids. Other stores do it so why not Waitrose?

I raised this with managers in the Headington store several times in the months after they opened but never had any constructive response. More recently the company’s Customer Service people have told me (personal email 16/11/2010) “The only requirement is a sneeze screen which should be in place, it is for us to decide the nature and size of this” and “Additional signage has been introduced to discourage handling the products directly and utensils/ tongs, bags are readily available on the fixture.” I asked what a “sneeze screen” was: it seems each shelf acts as a sneeze screen for the one below, which seems to me to miss the point.

I plan to ask the local Environmental Health people for their view on this and I’ll post any progress here. Meanwhile if you agree that you’d like to see the bread under cover please say so in the store, and leave a comment here. If you’re a public health professional and can refer me to any research which shows the Waitrose “sneeze screen” system does or doesn’t stop potentially infectious droplets falling onto the produce I’d be very interested to have the reference. Or if you think it’s not a problem and I should just stop worrying about it and get a life please feel free to say so.