Food Safety Myths

Food safety isn't a problem. I've been cooking for years and nobody has ever gotten sick from my food.

Though widely underreported, foodborne illness is a significant problem in the U.S. Even though the U.S. has one of the safest food supplies in the world, the CDC estimates that 48 million people a year get sick from something they ate, 128,000 of them end up in the hospital, and 3,000 of those people die. Often, people who are sick with a foodborne illness don't even realize it.

It was just a 24-hour flu bug or the stomach flu. I've never had a foodborne illness.

Foodborne illness is frequently mistaken for the stomach flu. This is understandable since many of the symptoms are similar. Depending on the bacteria or virus causing the illness, symptoms can include one or more of the following: nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, gastroenteritis, fever, headache or fatigue. Always consult your doctor for diagnoses and treatment options.

I just ate at a restaurant 45 minutes ago and I'm already sick. I know that restaurant gave me a foodborne illness!

This is a common, yet incorrect assumption about foodborne illness. People often think that when they get sick it is due to the most recent food that they ate. In fact, it is rarely caused by the last food you ate. Depending on which bacteria you ingested, the onset time for a foodborne infection can range from 6 - 48 hours, with some taking as long as two weeks to show symptoms. It is often very difficult to tell specifically which food made you sick. In addition, the symptoms of the stomach flu are very similar to foodborne illness and the time of exposure to the onset of stomach flu symptoms ranges from 1-4 days.

Foodborne illness is no big deal. It's just temporary mild discomfort and I'll get over it soon.

Ask anyone who has been diagnosed with a foodborne illness and see if they describe it as "mild discomfort." The average healthy adult may suffer through multiple symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and fever, but they will typically recover within a week. There is a segment of the population who is at an increased risk because their immune system isn't strong enough to fight off these infections. These folks are called vulnerable populations. They include children, the elderly, the immune compromised and pregnant women. Foodborne illness isn't just dangerous for these people, it can be deadly.

Food Poisoning doesn't cost anybody anything, it just makes you a little uncomforable, that's all.

In fact, foodborne illness costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars each year in lost productivity, hospitalization, long-term disability, and even death as these statistics reveal:

I don't need a thermometer; I can tell when my food is cooked by looking at it.

The only way to really know when a food is cooked and safe to eat is by taking a temperature. Minimum cooking temperatures are necessary to ensure that bacteria in raw meats and other foods are killed before consumption. Appearances can often be misleading and food can look done when it's really not. Make sure your foods are cooked to these minimum temperatures to ensure their safety:

  • 145°F - Raw shell eggs and single pieces of meat including beef, pork, veal, lamb, and fish
  • 155°F - Ground meats such as ground beef or sausage and foods containing raw eggs
  • 165°F - Raw poultry and stuffed foods such as stuffed fish or stuffed meats

I can't put hot food right into the refrigerator; it will spoil.

This is false. In fact, if you don't cool foods off quickly enough you run the risk of making them unsafe to eat. You want to cool them off as quickly as possible to minimize the amount of time that food is at unsafe temperatures. Doing so reduces the amount of bacteria in the food. Rapidly cool foods by placing them in shallow uncovered containers in the refrigerator, in an ice bath, or by adding ice as an ingredient.

photo: gallon of bleachMy kitchen is clean; I use a washcloth or sponge to wipe it down all the time.

While wiping a kitchen down to keep it free of dirt and food residue is good, it simply isn't enough to kill the disease causing bacteria that may be left behind on your counters and cutting boards. In order to reduce the number of pathogens to a safe level, use a sanitizer. A mixture of one tablespoon of bleach per one gallon of water will give you the right balance of bacteria killing power and safety around the kitchen.



If I cook food so that it's really hot will guarantee that it is safe.

Cooking foods to the proper temperature is a good start toward keeping your food safe. However, it's not always a guarantee that it is. Some bacteria produce a toxin as they grow and multiply. This toxin starts to build up in the food the longer the bacteria are allowed to grow. When this food is cooked, the bacteria are killed, but the toxin is still there. When the food is then consumed, it is the toxin that makes you sick, not the bacteria. The best way to prevent this from happening is to make sure foods are properly refrigerated until they are ready to be cooked. Keeping foods cold dramatically slows down the growth of bacteria.

Mayonnaise is the dangerous food in potato salad.

Mayonnaise always seems to get the blame as being the cause of foodborne illness outbreaks during a family picnic. The truth is that the mayonnaise you buy from the grocery store is not suitable for bacterial growth. Granted, the label says keep refrigerated, but that is for quality purposes. You wouldn't want to eat warm separated mayonnaise would you? Only the foods that say "Perishable, keep refrigerated" need to be kept cold to make sure they're safe. However, homemade mayonnaise always needs to be kept cold for safety reasons. So who is the culprit in the potato salad? It depends because all recipes are different, but they all have one thing in common, cooked potatoes. Once potatoes have been cooked, they become potentially hazardous which means that bacteria can grow on them quite well. The bottom line is to make sure that potato salad is kept cold regardless of what the secret ingredients are.

Eggs, especially hard boiled eggs, don't need to be refrigerated.

A bacterium, Salmonella enteritidis, can be inside perfectly normal-appearing eggs, and if the eggs are eaten raw or undercooked, the bacterium can cause illness. It infects the ovaries of healthy appearing hens and contaminates the eggs before the shells are formed. Studies have indicated that as many as one in 10,000 eggs may be internally contaminated. Since we don't know specifically which eggs those are, it's best to keep all eggs refrigerated until we are ready to eat them. You can also increase the safety of eggs by hard boiling and then air cooling them.

You can tell a food will make you sick by its smell, look, and taste.

You can't rely only on your senses to tell you when a food is no longer safe to eat. Disease causing bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella don't affect the way a food looks, smells or tastes. That is why following good food safety principles is so important, because there is no way to know you've made a food safety mistake until it is too late. By the way, if a food does smell, look, or tastes like its gone bad, it would be the spoilage organisms telling you that the food is no longer any good..



When a food label stays "expires on" or "use by," it is immediately bad the next day and will make you sick.

It is not a safety date. After the date passes, while not of best quality, the product should still be safe if handled properly and kept at 40 °F or below for the recommended storage times listed on the chart. If a product has a "use-by" date, follow that date. Types of Dates:

  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • A "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.

Rinsing meats like chicken and beef will remove the bacteria.

Rinsing raw meats with water has proven to be ineffective at removing bacteria. In fact, the act or rinsing off the meats causes a cross-contamination hazard by splashing around the bacteria along with juices from the meat. Don't do it.

I don't need to wash my hands as long as I use the sanitizing gel.

Hand sanitizing gel has been shown in studies to be less effective than traditional hand washing. Stick to using soap and warm water with scrubbing action for 10-15 seconds. Washing your hands with soap and water should always be the first option. However, if you find yourself in a situation with no soap or running water, sanitizing gel is better than nothing.

I don't need to wash produce because the store sprays it with a mister while on display.

The mister that the supermarket uses on produce is there simply to keep it from wilting. All produce should be thoroughly washed before eating. Wash fruits and vegetables under running water just before eating, cutting or cooking. Washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent, or using commercial produce washes is not recommended. Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush. Dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present. Many precut, bagged produce items like lettuce are pre-washed. If the package indicates that the contents have been pre-washed, you can use the produce without further washing.

If I have symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting, I can still safely prepare food as long as I wash my hands.

It is imperative that whoever is preparing the meals is in good health while preparing food. Someone that has been diagnosed with an acute gastrointestinal (GI) illness, or is showing symptoms such as diarrhea, or vomiting in conjunction with diarrhea, could potentially contaminate food. It is possible for someone to transfer their illness to others via the food. Even more disconcerting, there is the potential for someone working with large batches of food to spread the illness to numerous people causing an outbreak. Washing hands and wearing gloves may help prevent foodborne illness in a normal situation, but the safest course of action when someone is sick is to keep them out of the kitchen.

Microwaving food in plastic containers can cause cancer.

It's within the realm of possibility that substances used during the manufacturing process of plastics could leak into food during the heating process, but research isn't conclusive about the potential danger (if any) posed by such a phenomenon, and the FDA already imposes stringent regulations on plastic containers meant for microwaving as a preventative measure. If you are cooking with plastics, the best thing to do is to follow the directions and only use plastics that are specifically meant for cooking. If using plastic containers in microwaves, as millions of people have done for decades, posed a significant risk of cancer you'd be hearing about it somewhere other than an e-mail.

Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners can cause cancer.

After reviewing scientific studies, the FDA determined in 1981 that aspartame was safe for use in foods. In 1987, the General Accounting Office investigated the process surrounding the FDA's approval of aspartame and confirmed the agency had acted properly. However, the FDA has continued to review complaints alleging adverse reactions to products containing aspartame. To date, the FDA has not determined any consistent pattern of symptoms that can be attributed to the use of aspartame, nor is the agency aware of any recent studies that clearly show safety problems.

Carefully controlled clinical studies show that aspartame is not an allergen. However, certain people with the genetic disease phenylketonuria (PKU), and pregnant women with hyperphenylalanine (high levels of phenylalanine in blood) have a problem with aspartame because they do not effectively metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine. Therefore, the FDA has ruled that all products containing aspartame must include a warning to phenylketonurics that the sweetener contains phenylalanine.

Food prepared at home is much safer than restaurant food. If I get a foodborne illness, it is probably because I ate something bad at a restaurant.

In fact, the opposite is true. Experts say that poor home food-handling practices cause more foodborne illness than professionally prepared food. Most professional food handlers have been trained in safe techniques and are careful about how the food is prepared, cooked and stored. After all, an outbreak of foodborne illness traced to a restaurant can permanently harm business. At home, however, most people think they use safe practices. "I've always done it this way, and no one has gotten sick in the past," is often heard. Well, you may have gotten sick many times and thought you had the flu. Educate yourself on safe food preparation; be willing to change your attitudes about handling food in your kitchen, and your family and your stomach will thank you.

photo: turkey in panIt is okay to let turkey thaw out on the kitchen counter. Everyone does it that way.

Chicken and poultry are often contaminated with harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. During processing, a single contaminated bird can contaminate the entire processing line and the birds that come into contact with the contaminated line. Bacteria can easily survive on raw chicken and poultry. Thawing raw poultry at room temperature can allow these bacteria to grow and reproduce to dangerous numbers. It is best to thaw poultry in the refrigerator since bacterial growth is slowed at refrigerator temperatures. Since thawing a large turkey in the refrigerator might take 2 or 3 days, be sure to plan ahead.