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How to get sick! And sue Costco!

Why the ice man never giveth at this big box store.
Fish on ice: Too dangerous a combination for a mere consumer to handle?

Fish on ice: Too dangerous a combination for a mere consumer to handle? Buzz Hoffman

Calling all ambulance chasers — are you looking for a case against a $99 billion corporation? Here’s a hot tip.

I recently accompanied my favorite Costco member to the land of big boxes and bigger shopping carts to stock up on cheap beer and coffee. It being a Friday, a fresh-fish counter had been set up by the 17-pound meatloaves and rib racks. There, splayed on the ice, were some fine little wild Alaskan sablefish, a.k.a. black cod, costing just a buck or two more than the farmed salmon. Visions of kasu beckoned, I picked a fish, and the young guy in the white apron slipped it into doubled plastic bags..

“Would you drop a little ice in there?” I asked. We had more stops to make.

“Sorry, we’re not allowed do that.”

“Not allowed to — c’mon, man, don’t tell me the city bans ice now.”

“It’s not the city, it’s company rules. Somebody got some ice, spilled it on the floor, and slipped on it, and they sued and we’re not allowed to give ice anymore.”

I assume that suit was laughed out of court, unless Costco’s lawyers opted to pay the plaintiff off for less than the courthouse parking would cost. The idea that such a one-off claim would cow a company Costco’s size into denying its customers the most basic hygienic courtesy sounds like the height (or depth) of corporate litigiphobia.

Costco officials won't confirm or deny the account ("We don't discuss lawsuits"). But "we certainly don't give out ice," the company's vice president for food safety, Craig Wilson, told me. "There's lots of issues with it — food safety for one. You have to be very careful where you get your ice. We use potable water for ours, and we discard it at the end of the day. But you still wouldn't want it coming in contact with food."

But wait — this is fish that's been sitting in that same ice all day. And it's securely tied up in an inner bag, so ice in the outer bag wouldn't touch it.

Still, says Wilson, "I don't know any retailers who give out ice." Maybe my memory's too long; I remember a few cubes being routine with something like fish. But come to think of it, Wild Salmon provides a pre-sealed, presumably more sanitary freezer pack when you ask for that.

Costco didn't offer that. So here’s a more litigable scenario: You buy a fish on a hot July day rather than in chilly March. You ask for ice and are refused. The fish goes bad by the time you get home, but you don’t notice because your nose is stuffed with hay fever. You get sick with listeria/salmonella/cod crud and sue the boxes off Costco.

Sounds more plausible, with a clearer nexus of negligence, than that spilled-ice scam, doesn’t it? Happy fishing.

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget Sound; Love, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics. Scigliano also works as a science writer at Washington Sea Grant, a marine science and environmental program based at the University of Washington. He can be reached at eric.scigliano@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Mar 22, 7:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Costco, like most of Seattle's iconic retailers, operates under the assumption that their employees are a bunch of idiots who can't be trusted to make good decisions (and truth to tell, are robbing the company blind when nobody's looking), so there must be numerous, often contradictory edicts from the mothership. I've never quite understood the Costco fetish--for the most part, their prices are no better than most other stores, which also offer a shopping experience far less hellish. And really, aside from a restaurant, who needs a 5-gallon bucket of mayonnaise?

orino

Posted Sat, Mar 23, 5:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Who buys mayo at Costco? A whole lot of small restaurants for example.

But you exaggerate, Orino. Costco prices are great, as is the sheer selection of things my household uses.

Posted Fri, Mar 22, 9:48 a.m. Inappropriate

before I came to work in my family business, I worked for QFC when it was locally owned from age 15 for twelve years. this was in the 60's through 70's and even back then we had customers who would finance their vacation trips slipping on a wet spot they found on the floor. Most times our insurance would pay a nuisance claim of thousands just to keep it out of court. I can only imagine how much worse it has gotten for retailers over the years. So orino, its easy to have the knee jerk reaction that management is stupid, but they see the claims from all the stores and it is not a small amount.

katzjamr

Posted Fri, Mar 22, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Mutual Fish gives you ice if you want it. They rightfully seem to be concerned about their reputation as a fish market. That's where I go for fish.

Posted Thu, Apr 11, 3:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Mutual Fish does NOT have a huge store for you to walk around in. COSTCO is a great store. and I am sure we are all impressed you buy your fish there.

tjp

Posted Fri, Mar 22, 11:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Eric,

Besides Mutual Fish, Pure Food and Fish at the Market, Uwajimaya. Taylor United on Chuckanut will always ice down your oysters or crab, and Seattle Caviar uses the sealed blue ice packs.

Shop better places, you'll get better service - AND fresher fish!!

Ross Kane
Warm Beach

Ross

Posted Fri, Mar 22, 1:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Orino,

We have to drive 3.5 extra miles to Costco than the next cheapest store (Fred Meyer) and 7 extra miles from our local Safeway. We have to find parking. Finally we pay an annual membership fee. So we better not be going to Costco because we THINK its cheaper, we better be going because it IS cheaper.

So periodically we do a scientific price study, pricing everything in ounces so our comparison to identical products from other stores is the same. (e.g. lunch meat ham at Costco 24 oz. The same ham at Fred Meyer or Safeway, 16 or 12 oz, so we can't compare without pricing everything uniformly in ounces). Typically the comparison is brand-name to brand-name. In some cases it is brand-name (Costco) to an equivalent generic at the other store (when we can determine they are the same product (e.g. Boneless, skinless chicken breast).

Fred Meyer comes closer than Safeway to Costco on prices. You are correct that some items are the same price; however, overall we find Costco to be 30% cheaper than the same market basket of GROCERIES at another store. Over a year, that is about $1,200 less for our family of four.

So do we buy everything at Costco? Nope. Sometimes the extra mileage, gas, wear and tear, lines, etc. isn’t worth it to re-stock the milk, cheese, loaf of bread, etc. but for the once every three-week, planned, major re-stock of the freezer, fridge, and cupboards, its worth it.

So your assertion that Costco isn’t cheaper is factually wrong. I don’t work for Costco, I don’t contract with Costco, and I don’t own their stock. I just like a bargain and apparently have too much time on my hands to analyze things and look for a deal.

With regard to assumptions that employees rob retailers blind, that is also a fact. In retail, be it grocery or high-end clothes, the biggest single source of inventory shrinkage, by dollar volume (i.e. that which goes out the door without being paid for) is employee theft. It’s a VERY FEW employees, but when they leave with merchandise, or cash, it’s alot. All those cameras in the store, are not there to film you (but they do), they are there to film employees, particularly the after hours stockers and maintenance people (lulled into temptation because of the lack of people watching). So is it fare that 100% of the employees are treated as potential thieves? No. It is probably less than 5% of employees that steal, but in order to catch them and not run afoul of anti-discrimination and employment laws, the policies and measures that detect that theft apply to them all.

Posted Fri, Mar 22, 3:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Our Costco fish person advised us to get an extra plastic bag and fill it with ice from the soft drink station by the hot dogs. Works ok but our retail fishmongers are happy to provide ice.

Posted Sat, Mar 23, 11:53 a.m. Inappropriate

University Seafood & Poultry on NE 47th near the Ave - for my money, taste buds, and pleasure in courteous personalized service, the best place in Seattle for fish - with ice any time you want it. Oh, and the turkey at Thanksgiving and/or Christmas! Just remember to order those ahead.

Posted Sat, Mar 23, 5:10 p.m. Inappropriate

University Seafood is great. Fresh Fish Company in Ballard is too.

I don't buy seafood of any kind in traditional grocery stores, or Costco. Nor will I eat seafood in 99% of restaurants.

Posted Sat, Mar 23, 5:12 p.m. Inappropriate

What a bizarre article and point of view. No ice? Buy yourself a cooler, and buy some ice if you're not going straight home.

Be responsible for your own actions.

Posted Sat, Mar 23, 5:13 p.m. Inappropriate

What a bizarre article and point of view. No ice? Buy yourself a cooler, and buy some ice if you're not going straight home.

Be responsible for your own actions.

Posted Sun, Mar 24, 12:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Lucy Steers sent this word:

When we go shopping at Costco in warm weather (or at any store for that matter which is not within a few minutes of our house) we bring our cooler. We also buy a large bag of ice (at Costco, but also available at all mini marts) to keep the perishables from perishing. If they put cubes of ice in the fish bag it would melt and the fish would sit in warming water, which sounds gross. Maybe you should schedule your fresh fish purchase as the last stop on your list of other things to do rather than early on the list. It might be interesting to learn more about company policy re slippery ice on the floor but that sounds to me like a reasonable concern given the highly litigious state of today’s society.

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