January 22, 2018

Food Processors, Food Safety, the Law, and Common Sense

After the announcement of the Foster Farms raw chicken Salmonella outbreak, we realized there is a lot of misinformation out there about what contamination of food by pathogenic bacteria really means, both physically and legally. Reading comments on some other news stories really brought this point home. Most people do not understand why food safety experts and the law stress that food processors must produce safe food.

The law states that companies are not allowed to sell food contaminated with enough bacteria to make someone sick. In addition, there is zero tolerance for several bacteria in certain foods: E. coli O157:H7 in beef; Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods, and Salmonella in ready-to-eat foods. The government has also classified six other STEC (shiga toxin-producing escherichia coli) bacteria as adulterants on raw, non-intact beef products. But Salmonella on raw chicken, Listeria on raw fish, and Campylobacter on beef are accepted, as long as no one gets sick.

Many of the commentors on these stories blame the consumer instead of the corporation. This may be fear or denial, but blaming someone for getting sick when a corporation sold them tainted food is foolish. There are many other ways that food can make you sick once it is in your home, even if you cook the product perfectly to a safe internal temperature.

Cross-contamination is a huge problem in foodborne illness. It is extremely difficult to make sure that no pathogenic bacteria get onto other surfaces while preparing raw meats. One drop of raw chicken juice can make someone sick, if that drop accidentally gets onto a fork, the sink, the countertop, or someone’s hand, or a plate. And that bacteria should not have been there in the first place. It was introduced into the home by a company’s mistakes.

Cooking food safely is not easy; it takes skill, knowledge, time, and practice. And how many people really use a food thermometer when cooking meats? Studies say just 20%; and many of those people are probably not telling the truth. In fact, more than half of consumers say they never use a food thermometer at all. And many of those who do use the thermometer incorrectly.

The next time you hear about an outbreak, stop and think. Before you blame the consumer, remember that one out of six Americans gets food poisoning every single year.  Statistically, that means you will get sick every six years no matter how careful you may be.

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