Food Safety Myths and Facts

September 22, 2017
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We’ve all been there: you accidentally drop your favourite food on the floor and feel your heart sink watching it fall to its fate. We just can’t stomach throwing it in the bin, so we find ourselves quoting ‘facts’ about food safety. If it’s been on the floor for less than five seconds it’s still okay for consumption, right? Sadly, not quite.

In fact, we find ourselves quoting ‘facts’ about food safety in everyday life. But how true are these assertions?

Top Food Safety Myths

It’s important that we all understand how to prepare food safely and know the truth behind food safety myths. Not only are many of them false, but some are also dangerous and can pose risks to your health.

Below are our top ten food safety myths and the facts behind them.

Myth 1: The ‘5 Second Rule’. You can still consume food if it has only been on the floor for five seconds or less.

The Fact: Dr Ronald Carter from Queen Mary, University of London, subjected our favourite ‘rule’ to a thorough testing. He dropped samples of pizza, apple and toast onto different surfaces. All the dropped samples were covered in germs, compared to the control samples that had not been dropped. Sadly, the ‘5 second rule’ is not true, as bacteria can attach itself to food as soon as it hits the floor.

Myth 2: Food poisoning is just a stomach bug that goes away quickly.

The Fact: Food poisoning is not a stomach bug, and there are many differences between the two. Stomach bugs are usually caused by viruses and can be caught from being in contact with somebody who has the bug. Food poisoning, conversely, is caused by eating food that contains bacteria, viruses, moulds, or parasites (collectively known as pathogens). Furthermore, whilst the symptoms of a stomach bug usually last between 24 and 48 hours, food poisoning typically lasts between 1 and 7 days and, in extreme cases, can be life threatening.

person suffering stomach ache due to food poisoning

Myth 3:  Washing meat and poultry before cooking is good practice.

The Fact: Whilst rinsing meat can remove some of the bacteria on the surface of the meat, it does not remove the bacteria that are tightly attached. Not only that, but rinsing meat can cause water to splash off the surface onto surrounding areas, such as cutlery, crockery and worktops, and contaminate them.

Myth 4: Eating raw cake mixture and cookie dough is perfectly safe.

The Fact: We all know that raw cake mixture and cookie dough is likely to contain raw eggs, and that raw eggs have a small risk of carrying salmonella. However, it’s not just raw eggs we have to be wary of, but raw flour, too. In 2016, General Mills had to recall two boxed cake mixes as they were found to have a possible E. coli contamination. Whilst they are unsure about the original cause of contamination, it’s best to avoid eating raw cake mixtures and cookie dough.

baker kneading dough

Myth 5: Freezing, thawing, cooking, or microwaving food always kills bacteria.

The Fact: Whilst it is true that the above methods can kill bacteria, this is only when the food is chilled or heated to the correct temperature. The temperature required for killing bacteria depends of the method you are using.

  • Freezing – Most bacteria become inactive at frozen temperatures. Your freezer should be set at -18°C or below to ensure this.
  • Thawing – Thawing is best carried out at temperatures between 10°C and 15°C. You can also thaw food (except poultry) by placing it under cold running water, although take care to prevent cross contamination. If you defrost food in the microwave, be sure to check for uneven heating, which can cause some parts of the food to remain frozen whilst others are defrosted.
  • Microwaving or reheating – It’s important that you only ever re-heat food once. A core reheating temperature of 70°C for two minutes or 75°C for 30 seconds will normally destroy bacteria and make food safe to eat. The core temperature is the temperature of the thickest part of the food. Similar to thawing, be sure to check for uneven heating.
  • Cooking – Like reheating, a core cooking temperature of 70°C for two minutes or 75°C for 30 seconds usually destroys bacteria and make food safe to eat.

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Myth 6: You can tell by the look and smell of food if it’s safe to eat.

The Fact: In certain situations, you can tell whether food is safe to eat by looking at it or smelling it. If you look at your food and see mould, a change in texture (such as your milk going lumpy), discolouration or a slimy film, it’s best to avoid it. Similarly, if your food smells differently to when you bought it, it’s likely gone off. However, you cannot always see or smell when food is unsafe, so you must not rely on this method. Pathogenic bacteria, responsible for causing food poisoning, can only be seen under very powerful microscopes, and cannot be detected by smell or taste.

looking for pathogenic bacteria on food

Myth 7: Cross contamination cannot happen in a fridge because it’s too cold.

The Fact: Cross contamination occurs when harmful bacteria are transferred from a surface onto ready-to-eat food, making it harmful if consumed. If you have food in the fridge underneath raw chicken, for example, some of the chicken juices may drip onto and contaminate the food below. You must always place ready-to-eat food, such as sliced meats and cheese, above raw food in the fridge. Pathogenic bacteria can still live and cross-contaminate other foods in a fridge. For a handy diagram, take a look at our article on How to Store Food in a Fridge.

Myth 8: You don’t need to wash fruit or vegetables if you peel them.

The Fact: It’s always important that you wash fruit and vegetables before cutting, peeling, or eating them. The soil and water in which fruit and vegetables grow can carry harmful bacteria and parasites, which can sit on the food’s surface. Wash fruit and vegetables under running water and rub them clean to get rid of any soil.

potatoes covered in soil

Myth 9: Vegetarians don’t need to worry about food poisoning.

The Fact: Whilst vegetarians are not directly in contact with raw meat, they are still at risk from cross-contamination if meat is around. Furthermore, as we previously mentioned, fruit and vegetables can carry pathogens on their surface, which can contribute to food poisoning.

Myth 10: Plastic chopping boards are safer than wooden chopping boards.

The Fact: A scientific study from the University of California found that, on wooden chopping boards, bacteria did sink down beneath the board’s surface. However, once there, the bacteria could not multiply and eventually died off. It was also found that, on plastic chopping boards, bacteria can be caught in knife grooves. The verdict? Both plastic and wooden chopping boards and safe to use, as long as you thoroughly clean them. Use separate chopping boards for different foods, such as meat, fish, and vegetables, to prevent cross-contamination.

Hopefully this article has provided you with a detailed understanding of some popular food safety myths and the truths behind them. If you’d like more training on food hygiene and safety, take a look at our available courses.

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