Dangerous food safety mistakes that’ll cost you your health

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published May 28, 2019

Key Takeaways

With Memorial Day right around the corner, it’s important to avoid harmful food safety mistakes that can turn your evening of fun into an unintended health threat that may have lasting consequences.

Food hygiene is a general term that refers to the conditions needed to make sure that food is safe at every stage, including slaughtering or harvesting, processing, storage, distribution, transportation, and preparation. Without proper food hygiene, people can fall ill—and die—from foodborne infection.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some recommended food-hygiene practices.

Avoid BBQ

It’s important to understand the perils of that big barbeque you’ve been planning for months. Cooking meat at high temperatures results in the production of heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogenic chemical compounds. In addition, cooking with dry heat, grilling, broiling, roasting, searing and frying meats has been shown to increase the production of advanced glycation end products or AGEs, which are toxic compounds that may play a vital role in the development of metabolic disease, including diabetes.

Researchers of various epidemiological studies have also linked colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancers to the consumption of barbecued meats. More generally, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has deemed the consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Wash your produce

Do you wash your fruits and vegetables before meal prep or eating? Some people don’t because they think the risk of getting food poisoning from fruits and veggies is low. But this is not true. Escherichia coli and other bacteria found in dirt can cling to the surface of fruits and vegetables. There’s also the belief that fresh fruits and vegetables at supermarkets or farmers markets are washed before being sold. This is a common misconception.

In a study published in PLoS One, researchers showed that different types of fruits and vegetables harbor different compositions of bacteria. Vegetables like sprouts, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries were covered with taxa belonging to the family Enterobacteriaceae. Apples, peaches, grapes, and mushrooms were colonized by Actinobacteria, Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, and Proteobacteria phyla. They also found that organically grown food had lower Enterobacteriaceae concentrations—an evidence-based reason to choose organic.

Washing fruits and veggies before prepping, cooking, or eating raw can help remove many other types of bacteria in addition to E. coli. The key is to rub the produce under running water. This holds true even if you don’t plan on eating the produce skin in order to minimize the risk of transferring bacteria from the surface when peeling or cutting.

For firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, be sure to scrub with a clean produce brush in addition to washing. Make sure to dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel after washing to further remove any bacteria that may be present on the surface. Finally, after handling fresh produce, it’s important to wash your hands with soap and water.

Bagged or packaged produce marked as “pre-washed” or “ready to eat” may be consumed without further washing, according to the FDA

Minimize cross-contamination

Raw and ready-to-eat foods need to be stored separately to avoid bacterial cross-contamination. Furthermore, raw meat, which harbors lots of bacteria, needs to be stored in a sealed container and placed at the bottom of the fridge to avoid drippage onto other foods.

Another way to prevent cross-contamination is to wash utensils after single uses with fruits, vegetables, or meats, as well as using separate chopping boards for raw and ready-to-eat foods.

Wash your hands

It is as important to maintain thorough handwashing practices when handling produce as it is to maintain proper hand hygiene when working with patients. Your hands serve as carriers for many different types of fecal pathogens, including Salmonella, E. coliO157, and norovirus, which cause diarrhea. Hands can also spread respiratory infections like adenovirus and hand-foot-mouth disease. Handwashing with soap helps to significantly reduce these germs.

Here are some facts about handwashing from the CDC:

  • Handwashing with soap could protect about one out of every three young children who get sick with diarrhea, and almost one out of five young children with respiratory infections like pneumonia.
  • Although people around the world clean their hands with water, very few use soap to wash their hands. Washing hands with soap removes germs much more effectively.
  • Good handwashing early in life may help improve child development in some settings.

Use fresh cooking oil

It’s best to use fresh oil whenever you are frying. The heating of cooking oils to their boiling points yields free radicals that result in oxidative stress and promote cellular and molecular damage.

In one preclinical study, investigators discovered that these free radicals damaged the jejunum, colon, and livers of rats that consumed reheated oil only three times. In rats that received repeatedly heated cooking oil, researchers found increased serum levels of glucose, creatinine, and cholesterol, and decreased levels of protein and albumin.

Cook your food thoroughly

Which scenario poses a lower risk for food poisoning?

A) Cooking meat that was first washed before cooking at a temperature below 165 °F (~74 °C).

B) Cooking meat that wasn’t washed before cooking at a temperature of 165 °F (~74 °C) or higher.

The answer is B. Cooking meat at a temperature of  ≥ 165 °F (~74 °C) is the only way to kill all the germs. Although heavily debated among the general public, food safety experts, including the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), actually do not recommend washing raw meat before cooking. Not only is the practice inconsequential, given that cooking meat at the recommended temperature will kill any pathogens, it can result in cross-contamination and foodborne illness, such as salmonellosis.

However, for those who do choose to wash meat and/or poultry before cooking, the USDA recommends the following sanitary measures:

  • Wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds prior to and after handling food.
  • Cleanse your counter tops and sink with hot, soapy water.
  • For extra protection, sanitize any affected areas with 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water.

Moreover, if you don’t cook your food properly, there’s an increased risk of food poisoning. Here are some additional safety tips for cooking:

  • If microwaving, make sure that food is cooked throughout. To promote even cooking, try: cutting food into evenly sized pieces when possible, put larger or thicker items towards the outside edge of the dish, and rotating and stirring food during cooking.
  • Use a thermometer to check the internal temperature of food.
  • If you don’t have a thermometer on hand, a good rule of thumb is to reheat food until it is steaming hot or boiling—a good indicator that it is around the temperature for food safety.
  • Cook egg-containing foods thoroughly.
  • Store cooked foods in the fridge as soon as possible. They will keep in the fridge for a few days, but if you want to keep it longer, it’s best to freeze the food immediately after cooling in the fridge.

Don’t microwave plastics or take-out containers

Bisphenol A (BPA) could leach its way into food or beverages from containers made from BPA. Exposure to BPA has been linked to negative effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses, infants, and children. Furthermore, some researchers have suggested that a link may exist between BPA exposure and increased blood pressure.

According to the FDA, BPA levels in food are low and not of concern. But BPA levels can increase substantially if you nuke your food in plastic containers or take-out containers lined with BPA.  

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