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Food carries health risks

Did you ever stop to think that every bite of food you eat comes with its own set of health risks?

Given that studies have indicated we spend a little over one hour a day eating – isn't it worth educating yourself on best practices, as well as tuning in to how restaurants approach crafting your meals?

What you put in your mouth today has gone through several stages: It has been grown, watered, touched, picked, lugged, transported, refrigerated, frozen, prepped, cleaned, cooked and finally consumed. In many cases, your food has also been treated for pests or injected with hormones to promote growth.

It goes through a lot of hands, a lot of unknowns, and into a lot of empty stomachs waiting.

Dr. Arun Bhunia, Professor of Molecular Food Microbiology, Chair of the Food Science Graduate Program at Purdue University, is an expert on food safety risks. He has received numerous awards throughout his career and is Editor-in-Chief of Foods.

Dr. Bhunia said the biggest thing we need to understand about food safety risks is, "Cross contamination is what I would consider as the #1."

What is cross contamination?

The USDA defines cross contamination as "the transfer of harmful bacteria to foods from other foods, cutting boards, and utensils and it happens when they are not handled properly."*

This is especially the case when handling raw:

* Poultry

* Eggs

* Seafood

* Meat

"Keep these foods and their juices away from already ready-to-eat foods and fresh products."*

Why should you wash your hands after handling these raw items?

"You could become ill ... because anything you touch afterwards could become contaminated."* Picking up an apple to eat after transitioning raw chicken to a skillet is a perfect example.

No one is immune from foodborne illness. While it's "relatively common and not generally life threatening, it can seriously compromise the health" of various populations.

The most common cause of foodborne illness?

Norovirus. Yet, "Salmonella is the most frequently reported cause of foodborne illness."**

"The Department of Defense published its Food Safety and Quality Assurance Action Levels" which "represents the maximum acceptable limits for each test" for all "food analysis laboratories, commercial audits, food defense, and food and water risk assessments."***

The tests determine "the gross number of microbes for each of those products," Bhunia stated.

"When you talk about microbiology cross contamination, different pathogens have different standards." So for three that we are all familiar with, the microbiological general parameters are as follows:

* E. coli 157:H7 – there is a zero tolerance

* Salmonella – there is a zero tolerance

* Listeria monocytogenes – there is a zero tolerance

What's the goal?

"Keep the microbiology levels below our standard," Bhunia continued. This is to keep us safe and healthy.

In cheeses, there are several subcategories based on how cheese is made and the type of milk used. One common denominator is testing for:

Staphylococcal enterotoxins

The CDC states that "staph food poisoning is characterized by a sudden start of nausea, vomiting and stomach cramps." Diarrhea is common and symptoms start within 30 minutes to 8 hours.


The CDC states that "symptoms usually begin 6 hours to 6 days after infection and last 4 to 7 days." Diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps are the most likely symptoms.

Listeria monocytogenes

The CDC states "the bacteria are most likely to sicken people who are pregnant and their newborns, adults aged 65 or older, and people with weakened immune systems."

E. coli

The CDC states that people start feeling sick 3 to 4 days after they have been infected. Symptoms of stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea, and vomiting.

"You do not want pathogens to be in your food," Bhunia stated. "If it is not a specific pathogen overall, what you look for is microbiological quality. There is no one answer for all foods, so it is hard to give a broad picture."

It is reassuring to know that, in the U.S., our government agencies have strict measures in place to prevent foodborne disease and maintain our health.



***Appendix O – Department of Defense Food Safety and Quality Assurance Action Levels, Dec. 1, 2009, Ver. 2

Shelby Ramsey is a health journalist and publisher of


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