Top 5 food safety myths

Top 5 Records presents Top 5 Food Safety Myths by Bee Wilson, the author of "Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud.”

• The American food supply has never been so dangerous.
Wrong. If you find it terrifying feeding your family now, try imagining yourself in Washington or New York from the 1850s to the 1900s. You try to buy vinegar; you are sold sulfuric acid. Your peas come greened with copper, giving you a dose of heavy metal poisoning with every bite. Spices are bulked with breadcrumbs or sawdust. Children’s candies are colored with poisonous lead. Canned goods are laced with copper, tin and toxic preservatives.

• Packaged food is safer.
Packaged food is potentially less safe than unpackaged food. It passes through many hands before it reaches the consumer, increasing the odds that it has been tampered with at some point along the way. Plenty of packaged food is mislabeled — as is the case with the formula scandal in China, which has affected well-known brands.

• People who buy organic food don’t have to worry.
As with any other culinary fetish, "organic" is a target for swindlers. There have been numerous cases of organic food fraud in recent years — mass-produced eggs passed off as "organic free-range," for example.

• Science makes our food less healthy.
We owe a huge amount to the quiet behind-the-scenes work of scientists — the food detectives who do their bit to uncover food fraud.

• Eating safely comes down to individual behavior.
If we all take personal responsibility for washing fruits and vegetables and cooking poultry until it’s piping hot, surely we’ll be safe? Not so. Food safety is largely a question of politics. The Chinese dairy scandal demonstrated what happens when a government fails catastrophically at regulating its food supply.

Organic food myths

Rob Johnston argues in the U.K.’s Independent newspaper this morning that organic foods are not healthier or better for the environment, they’re packed with pesticides, and in an age of climate change and shortages, these foods are an indugence the world can’t afford.

Organic myths:

• Organic farming is good for the environment

• Organic farming is more sustainable

• Organic farming doesn’t use pesticides

• Pesticide levels in conventional food are dangerous

• Organic food is healthier

• Organic food contains more nutrients

• The demand for organic food is booming

All myths, and backed up by Johnston in the article. As far as microbial food safety, as we’ve written before,

Organic standards are process-based, and have nothing do to with end-product safety. Specific omissions include worker hygiene and recommendations for safe use of processing and irrigation water. Further, any guideline or standard is meaningless without robust verification. The production of safe food is the responsibility of everyone in the farm-to-fork chain — conventional or organic — and food safety, especially with fresh produce, must begin on the farm.

Top five food safety myths

The Australian version of the top-5 food safety myths is as follows:

• The three-second rule
If you drop food on the floor, pick it up within three seconds or so and it will be fine to eat. Wrong.

• Seafood is dodgy
Seafood is no more likely to cause food poisoning than other meats, and in Australia, strict regulations apply to its handling and storage.

• It’s OK to leave cooked rice/pasta out of the fridge
When these foods enter the temperature "danger zone" of 5-60 degrees, Bacillus cereus can form heat-resistant spores and a heat-resistant toxin.

• Dairy products cause phlegm
Dairy Australia and the National Asthma Council Australia say that this myth is not supported by scientific evidence, citing a comprehensive review in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.

• Mould on cheese and jam is not dangerous
Moulds can penetrate more deeply than the eye can see, so what looks like a small patch on your chunky raspberry jam or vintage tasty cheese might be a lot larger.

I didn’t know phlegm was a food safety issue, but Australia is a large exporter of dairy products so I guess they care (what would formally be called an example of value judgments in risk assessment).

What’s your top-5 food safety myths?

Mine would be (brought to you by top-10 records):

• Meat is cooked when the juices run clear
Color is a lousy indicator of doneness. Use a thermometer.

• It’s local/organic/natural/domestic so it’s safe
Can be, but need to provide evidence of microbiological safety of any food, from around the corner or around the globe.

• The last meal eaten, especially if it was at a fast-food joint, caused my foodborne illness
Nope, incubation times for most microorganisms — except some toxins and viruses — are at lot longer than a few hours.

• Washing fresh produce will make it safe
It may be frustrating for consumers and retailers, but there’s not much to be done once produce leaves the farm and packing shed. The risk has to be reduced on the farm.
• The bathrooms are clean so the food is safe
I’m not sure how big this is, but Ben says he hears it all the time, and I can’t think up a fifth, so going with it.
How about, certified/verified/HACCPified/inspected/audited don’t means that much unless there is a culture of food safety present farm-to-fork, 24/7.

Puking Myths: How to tell the difference between foodborne illness and the flu

During the holidays I heard a couple of barf stories that were attributed to uncertain causes. At the same time, Doug and I were laid up with the flu for about two weeks, neither of us really puking but feeling exhausted, nauseated with chills and muscle aches. One woman said she had the flu, too … that it came on really fast, was coming out both ends, and then she felt better the next day. I asked her, “Are you sure it wasn’t foodborne illness?” “Might’ve been…” she replied thoughtfully, probably going over the list of things she had eaten. Another friend just got back from Chicago – a trip that she said was ruined by her husband puking his guts out. They thought it was the Polish buffet because while he chose some foods, she had others, and she assumed something he ate was off. Might’ve been. But how do you know when it’s food poisoning and when it’s the flu?

The following list of flu symptoms, which I looked up while I was laid up on the couch over break, comes from the CDC :

Influenza usually starts suddenly and may include the following symptoms:

    * Fever (usually high)
    * Headache
    * Tiredness (can be extreme)
    * Cough
    * Sore throat
    * Runny or stuffy nose
    * Body aches
    * Diarrhea and vomiting (more common among children than adults) suggests you know the FACTS (Fever, Aches, Chills, Tiredness,
Sudden symptoms)

If you have foodborne illness, the FDA’s Bad Bug Book gives a comprehensive list of suspects by symptom and time of onset. It can be a little more complicated to diagnose as some toxins, such as shellfish toxin, can have an onset of diarrhea and vomiting in under an hour whereas salmonella takes on average 2-4 days to produce possible symptoms of abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, chills, malaise, nausea, and/or headache.

Foodborne illness is not usually (although sometimes can be) caused by the last thing you ate, and the flu does not usually (but sometimes can) produce vomiting and diarrhea in adults. Next time you’re puking your guts out, if you can manage to concentrate, you might have to make a longer grocery list of items in your diet. Was it what you had three days ago? Might’ve been.