Supermarket samples shunned here

Mr Dylan Teo, a coffee-making machine promoter at Tangs department store, giving out coffee samples.
Mr Dylan Teo, a coffee-making machine promoter at Tangs department store, giving out coffee samples.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Should you reach out for that tasty free food sample offered to you at the supermarket?

As crowds in the United States thronged hypermarts like Costco to stockpile groceries last week amid mounting Covid-19 fears, many displayed considerably less fear when helping themselves to free food samples.

A Reddit post voiced concerns over consumers spreading their germs and saliva when taking samples on a shared tray.

Shortly after, US newspapers reported that Costco and Albertsons will be suspending in-store food sampling in view of Covid-19.

Food samples are still offered here at Japanese supermarkets and bakeries, but 10 in-store promoters interviewed by The Sunday Times say there has been a sharp fall in takers.

Isetan Scotts supermarket promoter Jennifer Sin, 66, estimates a 90 per cent drop in demand for her stall's cold noodle samples.

"Now, most patrons wear masks so they can't try the samples anyway. At the end of the day, we have to throw leftovers away," she says.

Following the outbreak, she has to halve what she cooks daily to reduce wastage.

Tang's Nescafe Dolce Gusto promoter Dylan Teo, 23, has seen a similar cooling in demand for his coffee and tea samples.

Are such fears warranted?

According to Professor William Chen, director of Nanyang Technological University's Food Science & Technology Programme, some are and some are not.

"Consumers should not be over-worried about food being a medium of virus transmission, because the Covid-19 virus is tissue-specific. For the Covid-19 virus, its main target is the respiratory tract, not the digestive tract," he says.

However, you might not want to reach for that toothpick just yet.

As food samples are usually served in open public spaces, he advises caution, as the samples may pose risks of cross-contamination.

Consultant dietitian Dr Naras Lapsys, 54, of The Wellness Clinic, says: "How do you know someone has not just coughed on the sample that you are touching and putting straight into your mouth?"

While Dr Lapsys notes that the chance of Covid-19 transmission through snacking off a sample tray remains low here, the hazards posed are not worth it.

"Patrons must consider how the food has been prepared, how hygienic the food handler is and the cleanliness of the food equipment and serving surfaces.

"They also have to take into account how long the sample has been sitting out, because foods that have been exposed for longer allow more time for bacteria to grow," he says.

Although food poisoning risks are always there, he advises consumers to be extra careful, given the current situation.

But avid sampler Pearly Sun, 18, a student, is not too concerned.

"I still take cooked food samples as I read that the virus would have been killed in the cooking process," she says.

Others like administrative clerk Alice Choo, 64, prefer to be cautious.

"I normally take only samples that are freshly prepared before me. But for the time being, I'm playing it safe and avoiding samples altogether," she says.

Presently, Isetan Scotts and Takashimaya department stores and some Duke Bakery outlets still offer free food samples.

Lavender Bakery's cake samples are also available for tasting on weekends, when there is higher footfall.

At Tangs department store, consumers can also sample juice, coffee, tea and hot chocolate, which are freshly prepared upon request, by promoters selling Hurom juicers and Nescafe Dolce Gusto coffee machines.

However, some stores, such as Swee Heng 1989 Classic Bakery's Tangs outlet, have decided to stop offering samples.

An Isetan spokesman says it has not suspended the practice "in order to retain the store's unique experience", but adds that the store mandates that all samples are prepared hygienically and food handlers wear masks, headgear and gloves.

Isetan has also been sanitising its common areas more frequently since the outbreak.

Promoter Fatin Natasha, 19, who sells baumkuchen cakes at the Takashimaya Food Hall, changes her cake samples more regularly.

Other promoters say they now take out samples only upon request.

To minimise contamination, Prof Chen says promoters should cover their food samples.

In addition to food safety concerns, he says the real hazard they need to avoid is large crowds forming for popular food samples.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 15, 2020, with the headline 'Supermarket samples shunned here'. Print Edition | Subscribe