5 Food Safety Myths Debunked

Trust20 Contributors

October 26, 2021

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Exceptional food safety practices mitigate and prevent foodborne illness outbreaks. Foodborne illnesses, commonly referred to as food poisoning, can affect the reputation of a business, the health of the population, and the economy at large. People who experience food poisoning may stop dining at restaurants, turn to social media to drag the establishment they feel caused the illness, or submit a complaint about the business to their local health department. With an estimated 48 million people becoming ill from a foodborne illness each year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)), that’s a lot of consumers to alienate! In order to help the foodservice industry maintain safe food environments, Trust20 is here to dispel five common food safety myths.

Myth #1 - If something tastes good (or okay or delicious) it must be safe.

FALSE! Your sense of taste, smell, and sight cannot be trusted to suss out unsafe food! As few as 10 bacterial cells can cause a foodborne illness (such as E.Coli), which is not enough to be seen, tasted or smelled by a human. Rather than rely on your senses, you should refer to packaging expiration dates and food storage rules. You can always refer to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Cold Food Storage Chart. Another great resource to refer to is the Foodkeeper App, a resource developed by the Food Safety and Inspection Service,  Cornell University, and the Food Marketing Institute to help people maximize the freshness and quality of food items.

Myth #2 - If you get sick from food it’s always that last thing you ate.

FALSE! Symptoms of foodborne illnesses can appear anywhere from 30 minutes to six weeks after eating unsafe food. The chart below is an excerpt from the US Food & Drug Administration showing the threats vary quite dramatically and symptoms range from mild to incredibly serious, life-threatening sickness.

Organism Common Illness Name Onset After Ingesting Symptoms Duration Food Sources
Bacillus cereus B. cereus food poisoning 10-16 hrs Abdominal cramps, watery diarrhea, nausea 24-48 hours Meats, stews, gravies, vanilla sauce
Cryptosporidium Intestinal cryptosporidiosis 2-10 days Diarrhea (usually watery), stomach cramps, upset stomach, slight fever May be remitting and relapsing over weeks to months Uncooked food or food contaminated by an ill food handler after cooking, contaminated drinking water
E. coli O157:H7 Hemorrhagic colitis or E. coli O157:H7 infection 1-8 days Severe (often bloody) diarrhea, abdominal pain and vomiting. Can lead to kidney failure. 5-10 days Undercooked beef (especially hamburger), unpasteurized milk and juice, raw fruits and vegetables (e.g. sprouts), and contaminated water
Hepatitis A Hepatitis 28 days average (15-50 days) Diarrhea, dark urine, jaundice, and flu-like symptoms, i.e., fever, headache, nausea, and abdominal pain Variable, 2 weeks-3 months Raw produce, contaminated drinking water, uncooked foods and cooked foods that are not reheated after contact with an infected food handler; shellfish from contaminated waters
Salmonella Salmonellosis 6-48 hours Diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, vomiting 4-7 days Eggs, poultry, meat, unpasteurized milk or juice, cheese, contaminated raw fruits and vegetables

Myth #3 - The worst symptom of a foodborne illness is an upset stomach.

FALSE! An upset stomach is most commonly DISCUSSED symptom of foodborne illness – it is certainly not the only one, let alone the worst. There are many symptoms which have nothing to do with the gastrointestinal system (stomach, gut, etc.).

The CDC also notes that symptoms can occur in the nervous system, renal (kidneys) system, and muscular system. Other symptoms of foodborne illness can have a greater impact on certain at-risk populations like newborns ( sepsis, pneumonia, meningitis) and pregnant women (miscarriage). 

Myth #4 - I didn’t get sick from eating it, so no one else should either

False! Have you ever heard someone say they have a strong stomach? It isn’t just a saying! Some people’s systems are better equipped to defend against the bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses. Those who are more susceptible are often referred to as “high-risk” populations.

High-risk populations include the elderly, pregnant women, infants and young children, or individuals who are immunocompromised (HIV-AIDS, cancer, chemotherapy, or transplant recipients). In fact, Cedars-Sinai, a nonprofit academic healthcare organization in LA , recommends that if someone falls into one of these high-risk categories they should seek out a doctor as soon as symptoms develop

Myth #5 - Foodborne illness is over-diagnosed.

FALSE! Foodborne illnesses are actually underreported. One of the main reasons is because the primary symptoms of a foodborne illness (nausea/vomiting/diarrhea ) are often dismissed as just “the flu” and thus patients and doctors will not consider contaminated food as the cause of sickness.

Another factor to consider is that food safety research has rapidly expanded over the last few decades – and our understanding of foodborne diseases along with it. New types of bacteria and viruses have been discovered, thereby increasing the number of cases of foodborne illness reported in the past (that were mistaken as something else). Certain bacteria, such as Staphylococcus Aureus, have also grown stronger and now cause more serious symptoms – leading to higher reporting rates. 

The foodservice industry and the general public now hear more about foodborne illnesses because science allows us to detect the cause more easily, and food can be better traced back to its source due to the government standards in place today.

More than 250 different foodborne diseases have been discovered and each year, one in six people in the United States gets sick from consuming contaminated foods or beverages (Washington State Department of Health). 

Foodservice workers are at the frontline when it comes to protecting their communities from an outbreak of a foodborne illness. Operators can help facilitate creating safe foodservice environments by ensuring their teams receive the essentials of food safety from an accredited Food Handler Certificate training and by offering regular opportunities to refresh their knowledge.

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