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Are Bulk Food Bins Safe and Sanitary?

Bulk food bins are a great way to save money and cut down on packaging. But since anyone can put their hands in some of those bins, are bulk food bins safe and sanitary?

Bulk food bins are safe and sanitary as grocery stores usually only offer gravity bins that don’t allow customers access to touch the food. The bins themselves are washed and cleaned regularly on a set rotating schedule. And any potentially compromised food will be discarded.

But there’s a lot more to know.

In this article, we’ll explore how bulk bins work and how grocery stores keep them clean. We will also look at what changed with bulk bins as a result of 2020 and whether Whole Foods still has bulk bins.

Let’s get to it.

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How do bulk bins work?

Bulk bins are often available as scoop bins where customers can open a lid and scoop out the quantity of the food they desire. There is also a type called a gravity bin which is a tall bin with a mouth at the bottom that slides open to let the food pour out into a container.

They’re great because they allow customers to buy the exact quantity they want, usually at a cheaper price per ounce.

You can use the store’s containers or bring your own. You pay for the product and do not have to pay the hidden costs of packaging.

Before a customer starts shopping, the tare weight of their container is noted.

Tare weight is already factored in on the store’s containers. But if you bring your own, especially heavier glass containers, ask an employee to set the tare weight for you. That way, you only pay for the food and not your container.

The tare weight is the weight of the container when it’s empty. 

The savings of buying in bulk can be very substantial. In some cases, it can be as high as 50%! And, it can be marginal on some products.

But there are cases where the bulk price (per ounce or pound) is actually higher than the same thing in a package.

So it’s worth checking on the things you buy regularly.

But even if the price is higher, if it’s something you only need a small amount of, it’s still worth buying from the bulk bins.

The customer proceeds to fill their container with the exact quantity they want. In the past, before the pandemic, it was possible to scoop a lot of these consumables from plexiglass bins that were partially opened at the top.

But now, they are dispensed almost exclusively from gravity bins.

This is because, with the old scoop bins, there was nothing preventing customers (or little kids) from sticking their bare hands directly into a bin to touch the food.

Trust me, I’ve seen that many times. 

And while a store would usually dump and discard the entire bin if they witnessed that, how many times did it happen when no employee was looking?

Online grocery shopping is another option that many people like because of its convenience.

But by how much has it increased in 2020?

In a recent article, I looked at the percentage of groceries that are bought online and whether grocery pickup or delivery is more popular. But I also considered whether fewer people are shopping at grocery stores now.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

How do grocery stores keep bulk bins clean?

Grocery stores keep their bulk bins clean by having a cleaning schedule for all the bins. The employee would empty the remaining product into an auxiliary bin and then proceed to wash, sanitize, and dry the bin completely. Once dry, the product would be put back in, and the bin placed back in service.

Bins with simple things like rice may get cleaned every 2 weeks, whereas things that are sticky or messy such as dried fruit or candy, may get cleaned every few days.

Small bins and containers can often be put through a standard kitchen dishwasher.

But larger gravity bins have to be washed by hand in a large sink. In both cases, though, this keeps the bins clean and helps ensure that no pests (weevils and grain moths) stay out of the bins.

But as you’ve probably experienced at home at least once, nothing prevents those things 100% of the time, especially with organically grown items that never had pesticides on them.

Does Whole Foods still have bulk bins?

Whole Foods Market stores do still have bulk bins. However, scoop bins, which allowed customers to have direct access to the food, were eliminated with the exception of foods that were individually wrapped and then placed in the bin.

So now, you will only typically find gravity bins at Whole Foods Market.

At the height of the pandemic, the self-service option was stopped at all Whole Foods stores, as was done at other grocery stores.

In fact, throughout 2020, virtually all stores eliminated any self-serve food options.

It was the smart thing to do because of the risk of having many people use the same scoops and ladles and access to produce that’s partly open!

And in all the Whole Foods stores I’ve been to lately, all self-serve options seem to be back, from salad bars to the bulk department.

Both Whole Foods and Sprouts have bulk departments. But which is better?

I offered a guide in a recent article of mine. I compared the quality of Sprouts to Whole Foods and whether WF is now cheaper since Amazon took over. But I also revealed whether Sprouts is also owned by Amazon.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Can you bring your own bulk food containers to Whole Foods?

Customers can bring their own bulk food containers to buy in bulk at Whole Foods Market. But it’s ideal to get the tare weight noted at the customer service desk before filling containers. This eliminates being charged for the weight of the empty container.

Customers reusing their own containers makes sense.

After all, saving on packaging and waste is one of the big reasons people shop in the bulk department in the first place. And you can use mason jars instead of plastic which many also prefer. So bring in any containers you have; bags, jars, boxes, etc.

Whole Foods has a reputation for being expensive.

I bet you’ve wondered why? Check out a recent article where I shared some inside scoop seeing as I was a general manager there for twenty years.

In the article, I explored how much Whole Foods cost and whether it’s more expensive than Trader Joe’s, Sprouts, or Walmart. But I also revealed whether it’s cheaper now with Amazon Prime.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Did grocery stores get rid of bulk bins with lids?

Most grocery stores got rid of bulk bins with lids in 2020, when increased sanitation became a priority. Scoop bins posed a health challenge because of the ease of direct access to the food. Stores already had gravity bins, but they became the exclusive bulk bin in 2020 for almost all stores. 

Gravity bins eliminate the risk of contamination.

In the past, bulk bins with lids were regular sights at the self-service section of the bulk department of grocery stores. They just made more sense for things that would get stuck in gravity bins, such as dried fruits.

But I couldn’t tell you how many times I saw little kids stick their hands in those bins to grab candy. But even full-grown adults would help themselves to a sample or 3 and use their bare hands in the bin.

But things changed in 2020.

And like most things we had to get used to, we aren’t likely going to go back to how things were prior to March 2020.

If you’d like to get in and out of a grocery store in the shortest amount of time possible, it helps to know the different sections and how they’re laid out.

In a recent article of mine, I explained both.

I looked at the most common areas of a grocery store and the most common grocery terms. But I also revealed whether they are designed to make you walk a certain way.

Just click the link to read it on my site.


In the article, we explored how bulk bins work and how grocery stores keep them clean. But we also checked out whether Whole Foods still has bulk bins.

Then, we considered if you can still bring your bulk food containers to Whole Foods. Lastly, we wrapped things up by finding out if grocery stores got rid of bulk bins with lids.

Image by Melissa Wilt from Pixabay

Jeff Campbell