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How to get sick! And sue Costco!

Fish on ice: Too dangerous a combination for a mere consumer to handle? Credit: 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.

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