Food Contamination, Causes and Safety Precautions | Toolbox Talk

Food Safety refers to handling, preparing, cooking, and storing food in a way to best reduce the risk of getting sick from foodborne illnesses. 

Foodborne illnesses are usually infectious and caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemical substances entering the body through contaminated food. Food can become contaminated at any point; however, the primary responsibility lies with food handlers and cooks.

Which food contaminants compromise food safety?

Food contamination happens when food is affected by unwanted and harmful substances. The contamination can be of three types:

1. Physical Contamination

Physical contaminants are objects such as metal or glass pieces, hair, dust, stones, etc. These contaminants can cause severe injuries and infections in the digestive system. Physical contaminants are relatively easier to trace than other contaminants.

2. Chemical Contamination

Chemical contaminants are chemical substances mixing in the food due to exposure to chemicals. These contaminants can cause instant poisoning or long-term health effects such as cancers, stomach ulcers, immunity problems, etc.

3. Biological Contamination

Biological contaminants refer to substances produced by living creatures, such as rodents, pests, insects, or microorganisms. These include bacterial or viral contamination or parasite contamination transferred through saliva, pest droppings, or blood. This type of contamination can cause instant diseases, i.e., diarrhea, food poisoning, stomach infections, etc.

What causes food contamination?

Food contamination can occur at any point in food handling, preparation, and cooking. With more people cooking and eating in the same place, the chances for food contamination increase exponentially. It is therefore essential to understand the following leading causes of food contamination:

1. Lack of Personal Hygiene

Lack of personal hygiene is the most common cause of food contamination. Uncovered hair, long fingernails, and jewelry items are worn during food handling can lead to physical contamination. Similarly, lack of hand washing and touching body parts during food preparation is a cause of biological contamination.

2. Improper Cleaning Practices

Improper cleaning practices of kitchen surfaces, utensils, and raw food are the apparent reason for the biological contamination of food. If germs contaminate one surface, they can spread to every food item that touches it. Similarly, open waste bins near the food preparation area can cause a foul smell and attract rodents and insects.

3. Contaminated Water

If contaminated water is used to wash utensils, raw vegetables, and meat, the contamination will spread to those items. This will be more harmful if the same water is used for cooking the food. Contaminated water can pose serious health hazards and may lead to waterborne diseases.

4. Cross Contamination

If a cook uses a cutting board or knife to cut raw meat and then uses the same knife or cutting board without washing it to slice salad vegetables, the salad can be contaminated by germs from the meat. It is therefore essential to prevent cross contamination as the meat will be safe after cooking but not the fresh salad.

5. Improper Storage of Food

Storage of food items with cleaning chemicals or detergents may lead to chemical contamination of food. Similarly, storing meat, vegetables, or fruit at elevated temperatures for longer periods will start producing microorganisms in them and lead to biological contamination. Placing meat in the refrigerator above other food items can cause meat fluids to contaminate the items below.

6. Lack of Pest & Insect Control

Pests and insects in food preparation areas are considered a severe health risk. They not only contaminate food with foreign bodies such as feces and hair, but they also carry microorganisms of fatal diseases. Lack of controls for pests and insects can lead to definite contamination of food items.

7. Unhygienic Serving Practices

Serving food with unclean utensils, touching food that is ready for serving, or the parts of the serving dishes cause contamination at the last stage. Similarly, leaving served food uncovered on the table for a longer period can cause physical as well as biological contaminations.

8. Poor Health of Food Handlers

If a food handler is sick or has an infection, he or she can easily transfer harmful bacteria or viruses to food and can make others sick. Common flu, diarrhea, and stomach infections are the most common diseases spread by contaminated food. Similarly, if someone has a cut or sore on his finger, he can contaminate the food from his blood or lacerations.

How to avoid food contamination?

The key to avoiding food contamination and practicing food safety lies in four steps;

  • Clean – Keep yourself and work areas clean. Wash your hands, kitchen utensils, fruits, and vegetables in running water.
  • Separate – Separate raw meats from ready-to-eat food. Use individual serving utensils.
  • Cook – Always cook food to the right temperature. Follow package cooking instructions.
  • Keep it Safe – Place cooked food in separate containers. Refrigerate cooked food and leftovers. Reheat food before serving.

For in-depth knowledge of food safety, please check this Free Online Course.

Jawad Chand

Jawad Chand is an occupational health & safety practitioner and trainer with extensive experience in oil & gas safety management, process safety, pharmaceuticals hazard control, and health & safety management systems. He is a highly qualified professional with the most prestigious degrees in Business Administration, Chemical Engineering, and Occupational Health & Safety.

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