What is Food Contamination?
The United States has seen several food recalls in the last few months. Sunset Farm Foods Inc. recalled about 4,480 pounds of pork and chicken smoked sausages early September. The sausages were contaminated with thin blue pieces of plastic. A little before that, a public health alert was issued by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA for 42-ounce bags of frozen, gluten-free, ready-to-eat Purdue chicken breast tenders. A food recall wasn't issued in this case because the product was already off the market when customers reported finding clear plastic and blue dye in the packages. Then, in mid-September, 28,000 pounds of beef were recalled by the FSIS when HelloFresh meal kits were suspected to be contaminated with E. coli.
These are only a handful of the many cases of food contamination reported this year in the United States. On average, 48 million episodes of foodborne illness and 3,000 deaths occur annually in the country.
What is food contamination, though? Food contamination occurs when food comes into contact with harmful bacteria, viruses, or chemicals. The contaminants can enter the food supply during production, processing, or packaging. Contamination can also occur if food is not cooked properly, is kept at unsafe temperatures, is prepared in an unsanitary environment, or cooked with contaminated utensils.
Typical symptoms of food poisoning include vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. In severe cases, food poisoning can lead to dehydration, organ failure, and even death.
The Dangers and Impact of Food Contamination
Food contamination can have a significant impact on public health. When food is contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, or toxins, it can cause foodborne illnesses, which can range from mild to severe, and in some cases, even be fatal. Symptoms of foodborne illnesses vary based on the type of contaminant in the food.
The Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network noted an 8% decrease in foodborne illnesses from 2016 to 2021. Researchers reported over 22,000 infections in the agency's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, including 5,300 hospitalizations and 153 deaths. But it's not a reason for celebration yet as experts attribute this decrease to COVID-19 pandemic disruptions.
The United States food supply is one of the safest globally, and work is constantly being done to minimize contamination, but there are still some risks present. This is why it's better to be aware of the dangers of food contamination.
Some chemicals can contaminate foods, making them poisonous to eat. It can happen during farming or processing, or if contaminated water comes into contact with the food. Hidden allergens in food (such as peanuts in peanut butter) can also be harmful to people prone to allergies. Small traces of allergens too can cause severe reactions in some people. Foods can also become contaminated with radiation through nuclear accidents or from certain types of packaging. In addition, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) plants or animals created through gene-splicing techniques (which involve mixing DNA from different species) can be reasons for health scares, although there is no definitive evidence to prove this.
Some of the most common dangers of food contamination include-
- Food poisoning- It can cause a number of symptoms, like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. In severe cases, food poisoning can even lead to death.
- Allergic reactions- Some people may be allergic to certain contaminants present in food. These allergies can range from mild to life-threatening. Symptoms of an allergic reaction range from mild (rashes, itchiness) to severe (anaphylactic shock). Some allergies also cause swelling, difficulty in breathing, and chest pain.
- Infections- Contaminated food can also cause infections with various symptoms, including fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach cramps. In severe cases, they can lead to hospitalization or even death.
- Kidney damage- Some contaminants present in food can damage the kidneys if consumed in large quantities over time. Kidney damage can lead to several health problems, including kidney failure and high blood pressure.
- Cancer- The World Health Organization reports that chemical contamination can cause acute poisoning or long-term diseases like cancer. Several studies attest that certain contaminants present in food can increase the risk of cancer. Some contaminants include chemicals such as dioxins, PCBs, and ionizing radiation.
- Congenital disabilities- Some contaminants (certain pesticides) can also increase the risk of congenital disabilities if pregnant women consume them.
Food contamination is a serious problem that can lead to serious illness or even death
Be aware of the different types of food contamination and how to avoid them in your kitchen
Types of Food Contamination
Common types of food contamination include chemical contamination, physical contamination, and microbial contamination. Chemical contamination can occur when food comes into contact with harmful chemicals such as cleaning products or pesticides or foreign objects like hair or dirt. Physical contamination occurs when foreign objects contaminate food or drinking water. Microbial contamination happens when food or drinking water is contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or other microorganisms.
Contaminated food (and water) often looks and smells normal so you may not notice the contamination at first glance; however, if you suspect that something might be wrong with your food, do not eat it. Throw it away and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
Here's a closer look at these forms of contamination-
Chemical contamination of food occurs when chemicals enter the food supply. These chemicals can come from various sources -- pesticides, herbicides, cleaning products, and packaging materials. Unfortunately, some chemicals can harm our health, causing problems like cancer or congenital disabilities. However, there are a few things we can do to minimize our exposure to these contaminants-
- We can choose to buy organic foods whenever possible. Organic foods are grown without the use of harmful chemicals.
- Keeping your food clean can help in a big way. Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly, cook meats to the right temperature, and avoid food cross contamination between raw and cooked food. Washing food thoroughly also removes residual pesticides or other contaminants on the surface of the produce.
- Avoid processed foods as much as possible as processed foods often contain high chemical additives and preservatives.
- Learn about the chemicals in your food, familiarize yourself with common food additives and contaminants, and learn how to spot them on ingredient lists.
- If there is a recall of a certain food product, do not purchase or consume it until it has been declared safe by the authorities.
Physical contamination of food of food refers to the presence of foreign matter in food. Foreign objects can include anything, from metal shards and stones to insects and hair. While most contaminants won't make you sick, they can spoil the appearance and quality of your food. The contamination can happen anytime during the food's journey from farm to table. Physical contamination can pose a health risk if the foreign matter is harmful or contains bacteria that can cause food poisoning. In one recent case, glass shards were found in a McDonald's Happy Meal bought by a lady and her granddaughter in Delaware County.
One way to prevent physical contamination of food is to make sure all surfaces that come into contact with food are clean. It means washing hands, utensils, and countertops with soap and water before and after handling food. Food handlers, in particular, should be very careful. It is also essential to inspect groceries, fruits and vegetables, meat, and ready to eat food for signs of foreign material.
Food contamination is a global safety concern
The article will explore different types of contaminants and how they are likely to occur
Biological contamination of food or microbial contamination is the presence of harmful bacteria, viruses, or parasites that can cause illness or death. In such cases, the food is contaminated with infectious bacteria, like L. monocytogenes or Salmonella spp., or toxin-producing organisms like Clostridium botulinum, and viruses like norovirus. These are common causes of food poisoning and food spoilage. Salmonella, and E. coli. Pathogens can also contaminate water supply, leading to outbreaks of waterborne diseases such as Legionnaires' disease and cryptosporidiosis. In addition, contaminated food may contain pathogens that can cause serious diseases such as cholera.
Biological contamination can occur at any stage in the food production process. For example, during the transportation of food, the storage conditions need to be controlled to prevent contamination. It means keeping foods at the correct temperature (hot foods, hot, cold foods cold), preventing cross-contamination between different foods, and not allowing contaminated food to come into contact with other food products.
There are three ways that radiological contamination can occur in food- via the air, water, or soil. Airborne contamination occurs when radioactive particles are released into the atmosphere and eventually settle on food crops. In waterborne contamination, radioactive material dissolves in water used for irrigation or washing produce, often due to nuclear accidents or improper disposal of nuclear waste. Soil contamination results from radioactive material seeping into the ground and being absorbed by plants. This usually happens over a long period due to nuclear weapons testing or uranium mining. Plants and animals can take up this radioactive material and it can eventually end up in the food supply.
How to Prevent Food Contamination?
Most foodborne illnesses are caused by human activity, often by poor hygiene practices of food handlers. Food handlers can contaminate food at any stage of the food production chain. Not washing hands properly after going to the toilet or handling raw meat, not washing fruit and vegetables properly before eating or cooking them, cross-contaminating cooked food with raw meat or poultry, using dirty utensils or equipment, or storing raw meat above ready-to-eat foods in the fridge -- are some of the common ways for food to get contaminated. Maintaining cleanliness throughout the food production chain is crucial. This includes regular cleaning and disinfection of all surfaces that come into contact with food.
Learning about food safety and taking a food handlers' course can help prevent food contamination. If food handlers are aware of potential sources of contamination and take steps to avoid them, they can keep the food system safe from harmful bacteria and other contaminants. Therefore, training oneself via a basic food handling course is a must. Zipfoodhandler's online curriculum, for example, teaches the proper way to prepare and store food. Zipfoodhandler Features information on the different types of bacteria that can cause food poisoning and how to prevent them from growing.
Some common ways to keep contamination at bay are-
- Cross-contamination occurs when bacteria from one food item spreads to another. To prevent this, keep raw and cooked foods separate, and don't use the same cutting board or knife for both.
- Bacteria thrives in warm, moist environments. So it's important to store food properly, in airtight containers, and at the appropriate temperature (usually in the fridge).
- Moldy or expired foods should not be consumed as they may contain harmful bacteria. When you see mold on food items, throw them out immediately.
- Undercooked foods can also be a source of bacteria, so ensure that you cook food thoroughly before eating it.
- Keep food sources as local as possible. This minimizes the risk of contaminated foods entering the supply chain.
Contamination can happen anywhere where the food is being handled
Zipfoodhandler's guide will help you with ways to prevent food contamination