The Illusion That is Consumer Safety

There is a certain level of trust that is held between a company and its consumers. When we buy a good or service, we expect it to be of a certain quality. Typically we don’t consider whether or not a product is safe because the assumption is that our Tylenol is ready to take, our cars are safe to drive, and even that our cigarettes will provide a consistent experience. Product safety isn’t just a once every few years problem either. Just check Google News against the word salmonella and you’ll quickly understand why our expectation of safety may be more of an illusion than a reality.

Foodborne illnesses aren’t limited to things like Salmonella and E. coli either. Did you know there are more than 250 different food related illnesses that have been described? Most are related to a variety of bacteria, viruses and parasites that can be foodborne, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains an alphabetical list of them on their website. The CDC has also estimated that 128,000 people will be hospitalized next year and as many as 3,000 will die because of them.

There are numerous ways for food to become unsafe and it isn’t just meat products you need to worry about.

  1. Many foodborne microbes are present in the intestine of healthy animals that are raised for food. Meat and poultry can become contaminated when being prepared for sale if they come into contact with even a small amount of intestinal contents.
  2. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be contaminated if they are washed or irrigated with water that is contaminated with animal manure or human sewage.
  3. Some types of Salmonella can infect a hen so that it is transferred into a normal looking egg before the shell is formed.
  4. The Vibrio bacteria that is naturally present in seawater can be picked up by Oysters and other filter feeding shellfish. They could also pick up other microbes that are present in human sewage dumped into the sea.

Those are just some of the things that could happen to your food before it’s even processed and ready for purchase. Eventually, other foodborne microbes can be caused by humans who handle the food, or by cross contamination from some other raw agricultural product. For example:

  • The hepatitis A virus and can be introduced by infected food handlers that don’t practice good hygiene.
  • An infected piece of meat could indirectly contaminate other ingredients in the kitchen if the same knife or cutting board is used to prepare both without cleaning the surfaces in between.
  • Recontamination of fully cooked foods can happen if they touch other raw foods that are already infected

All of that may seem overwhelming, but there are ways to combat food safety issues.

  1. Proper refrigeration helps prevent bacteria growth, and keeps foods that may potentially become harmful safe for consumption.
  2. High salt, sugar or acid levels helps keep bacteria from growing which is why foods with these contents are often preserved.
  3. Microbes are killed by heat. A food temperature that reaches 160 ℉ is sufficient to kill parasites that can make you sick.

Keep in mind that these are more guidelines than hard rules, and exceptions do exist. As with the alphabetical list of diseases, the CDC also maintains tips and pointers on their website that includes a list of exceptions to look for during prep and cooking. They’re worth a look especially considering that we’re currently amidst the holiday season. The reality of the situation is that there are potential pitfalls around every corner we look. By taking some time to understand where they may exist we can maximize our ability to remain safe, and there’s no illusion in that.