The Columbus health department took the unusual step of shutting down two grocery stores this month after shoppers reported rodent droppings and chewed grocery items on store shelves.
On March 2, an inspector with Columbus Public Health discovered a rat infestation at the Kroger at 1441 South Parsons Ave. The inspector noticed rodent droppings on store shelves, and saw gnawed bread bags and other chewed food items for sale.
“The bread seemed to be the favorite item of the week, and there were some gnaw marks on the bread,” says health inspector supervisor Robert Acquista.
Inspectors found similar conditions April 5, which led them to close the store. It reopened less than 24 hours later.
Acquista says workers at that Kroger removed boxes and other debris from store floors that had attracted rats. No violations were reported in 18 follow-up inspections.
At the Giant Eagle at 280 East Whittier Street, in German Village, shoppers reported mice droppings and chewed food items on store shelves. On April 18, the store closed for several hours.
Mice themselves, the Health Department says, are not uncommon at grocery stores. But it's rare the problems get so bad that the store must be closed.
“All of these big facilities, you’re going to see them come in. You’re going to open a door and they’re going to come in,” Acquista says. “You look at how bad it is, what the droppings are, what the harborage is, if there’s gnaw marks. So you have to look at it on a case by case basis to make that decision.”
Acquista says cold weather can force many rodents to seek shelter indoors where they may stay if unchallenged. He also blames ongoing construction on the South Side for some of the rodent infestation at the stores.
“You’re disturbing where they live,” Acquista says. “So, they’re looking for shelter and they’re looking for a place to stay warm and get food.”
Both Kroger and Giant Eagle released statements about the rodent infestations.
“Our team worked diligently to correct concerns presented by the health department, so we could reopen the store and continue serving the community as quickly as possible," Kroger said in a statement. "We will continue to work with Columbus Public Health to ensure a safe shopping experience moving forward.”
Giant Eagle said that "we immediately took the requisite steps to meet not only the high standards we set for ourselves, but those of the City of Columbus and most importantly those of our customers. The store reopened within hours of the notice and we are committed to reviewing, and where necessary improving our processes and policies.”
Acquista says store workers everywhere need to stay alert.
“Rodents don’t want to be seen. They don’t want to be out in public when people are around,” he says. “So you have to kind of look behind things and under things, and that’s where you’re going to find where they’re living.”
Health inspectors continue to monitor the stores.