Can eating at your desk make you sick?

 A new survey, released by the American Dietetic Association and ConAgra Foods’ Home food Safety program, found that while lots of us remain chained to our desks at meal time – 62 per cent at lunch time and 27 at breakfast – we’re skipping out on basic precautionary measures that reduce the risk of foodborne and other illnesses.

Alyssa Schwartz of writes that while experts say perishable food needs to be refrigerated within two hours of leaving home or it will start to spoil, half of the survey respondents admitted they left theirs sit out for three or more hours.

That may not be particularly risky for some items, says Dr. Doug Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, but not storing others properly could put you at risk for serious – even deadly – bugs such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria. And here’s the rub: “It’s probably not the foods you think that will make you sick,” Powell says.

An egg salad sandwich, for example, will likely keep unrefrigerated until lunchtime – provided you use store-bought mayo, which acts as a built-in preservative. On the other hand, eat with caution when it comes to deli meats and soft cheeses and commercially prepared dishes (“all the foods they warn pregnant mummies about,” Powell says).

Powell also cites some unexpected culprits – in particular, salad fixings and rice. “When you cut produce, you create a lot of opportunities for existing microorganisms to grow,” he says. In the case of rice, leaving it sitting at room temperature, whether at home after cooking or on your desk at work, can allow spores to grow. For both, refrigeration is key. And for rice and other cooked foods, make sure to reheat your dish in the microwave up to at least 60°C, the minimum temperature for killing bacteria.

“If you do get sick,” Powell says, “it’s likely not going to happen for a few days. In the case of listeria, it can take up to 30 days. It can be very difficult to attribute food poisoning to a certain food.”

That’s why you shouldn’t assume that just because you haven’t gotten food poisoning in the past that your lunchtime practices are just fine.

“Most people mistake food bugs for the stomach flu. But they’re wrong.”

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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