Nosestretcher alert: foodborne illness happens in lots of places besides home

It’s one of those throwaway catch phrases that people promoting some food safety information campaign just can’t help themselves from using: most foodborne illness is from improper handling and cooking of food at home.

In one of those throwaway blurbs in the Vancouver Sun this morning (that’s in Canada), Mia Stainsby reports:

“A doctor (Dr. John Carsely, Vancouver Coastal Health medical health officer) and a chef (David Robertson, of Dirty Apron Cooking School) will be giving a talk on how to prevent food-borne illnesses at home. Some 700,000 cases of food-borne illnesses are reported in B.C. each year and most are from improper handling and cooking of food at home.”

Show me the data. We’ve reviewed most of the data and seen estimates of the home as the source of foodborne illness vary from 11-84 per cent. And most of the data sucks. If a person eats peanut butter or spinach at home, they might get sick at home, but the contamination was beyond the control of the consumer.

As we’ve written before, while some occurrences of foodborne illness result from unsafe practices during final preparation or serving at the site where food was consumed, others are consequences of receiving contaminated food from a supplier, or both. Data gathered on instances of contamination that lead to illness make greater contributions to the development of programs that reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses, than data or assumptions that describe locations where contaminated food is consumed.

The talk will apparently share the importance of using cooking and fridge thermometers to help prevent food poisoning. Great. Foodservice needs that message as well, so why throw in a throwaway comment about the home?

And how ironically ironic that the talk takes place at 11 a.m. at Dirty Apron Cooking School. Take some swabs of those dirty aprons at the cooking school; it’s not a home.

Jacob, C.J. and Powell, D.A. 2009. Where does foodborne illness happen—in the home, at foodservice, or elsewhere—and does it matter? Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, 6(9): 1121-1123.

Foodservice professionals, politicians, and the media are often cited making claims as to which locations most often expose consumers to foodborne pathogens. Many times, it is implied that most foodborne illnesses originate from food consumed where dishes are prepared to order, such as restaurants or in private homes. The manner in which the question is posed and answered frequently reveals a speculative bias that either favors homemade or foodservice meals as the most common source of foodborne pathogens. Many answers have little or no scientific grounding, while others use data compiled by passive surveillance systems. Current surveillance systems focus on the place where food is consumed rather than the point where food is contaminated. Rather than focusing on the location of consumption—and blaming consumers and others—analysis of the steps leading to foodborne illness should center on the causes of contamination in a complex farm-to-fork food safety system.

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About Douglas Powell

A former professor of food safety and the publisher of, Powell is passionate about food, has five daughters, and is an OK goaltender in pickup hockey. Download Doug’s CV here. Dr. Douglas Powell editor, retired professor, food safety 3/289 Annerley Rd Annerley, Queensland 4103 61478222221 I am based in Brisbane, Australia, 15 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time