Protecting Food: Examples of Cross-Contamination and How to Prevent It
Ten percent of the world’s population falls ill each year after eating contaminated food. Nearly 600 million people become sick because their food was improperly handled. Even more tragically, 420,000 people who become ill from consuming contaminated food end up dying from foodborne illnesses. One-fourth of them are children.
Contaminated food also exacts a serious economic toll, particularly on developing nations. The vast number of people falling ill after eating contaminated food strains healthcare systems and negatively impacts global trade, tourism, and economic development.
Closer to home, if you run a business that manufactures, prepares, or serves food to the public, food contamination can put your customers at risk, destroy your reputation if patrons become sick, and severely impact your revenue. It can also get you in hot water with the government, as regulators often come down hard on restaurants and other food-handling facilities that fail to practice safe food-handling practices.
Since one of the primary causes of food contamination — cross-contamination — is largely preventable, you can make sure that the food you produce and serve is safe for all as long as you adopt and employ sound food-handling practices.
This article examines the dangers of cross-contamination, explains the types of cross-contamination and how they are most likely to occur, and discusses the consequences. It also offers lifesaving — and business-saving — steps that can be taken to keep food supplies safe.
Types of Food Contaminants
Hundreds of contaminants can make their way into your customers' food. These contaminants include:
- Bacteria and viruses. The most common contaminants, and the ones that make up the majority of cases of food poisoning, are bacteria and viruses. Common bacteria that cause food illnesses include Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter, Staphylococcus aureus, E. coli, and Listeria monocytogenes.
Viruses typically transmitted through food include the human Norovirus (NoV) and hepatitis A (HAV). Other viruses — including Enterovirus (EV), human Rotavirus (HRV), hepatitis E virus (HEV), and Parvovirus — are also capable of being transmitted to people through food.
- Parasites.Parasites — such as Giardia duodenalis, Trichinella spiralis, Taenia saginata (beef tapeworm), and Taenia solium (pork tapeworm) —can make their way from their animal or human hosts into the food supply. That can happen, for example, if untreated feces is used as fertilizer and the vegetables grown with that fertilizer are not properly washed.
- Molds. Mold found in many foods can produce “mycotoxins,” poisonous substances that can make you sick.
- Allergens. While not dangerous for everyone, specific allergens in food — such as those in peanuts — can spread through cross-contamination and cause severe reactions in those affected.
3 Main Types of Cross-Contamination
There can be confusion surrounding cross-contamination’s meaning and how it comes about. Cross-contamination is the physical movement or transfer of harmful bacteria or other microorganisms from a person, object, or place to another person, entity, or location. The 3 examples of cross-contamination are the transmission of harmful germs from food to food, equipment to food, and people to food. The following explains how contamination can occur in each and provides examples of cross-contamination scenarios.
One of the most prevalent examples of cross-contamination occurs when contaminated food comes into contact with otherwise uncontaminated food. Food that is raw, undercooked, unwashed, or spoiled can harbor bacteria, mold, or other dangerous substances. When this harmful food comes into close proximity to non-contaminated foods, it can cause hazardous food-to-food cross-contamination.
What are Examples of Cross-Contamination Where Germs Are Passed From Food to Food?
The following offers typical scenarios where food-to-food contamination occurs include:
- Adding unwashed lettuce or other vegetables into a salad.
- Mixing old leftovers that should have been thrown away with fresh food.
- Combining new leftovers with fresh food and saving it beyond the consumption date.
- Storing undercooked or raw meat or contaminated vegetables next to other food.
- Placing raw meat next to or near other food, such as vegetables, in the refrigerator so that the uncooked meat touches or leaks into the otherwise safe and fresh food.
Equipment to Food Cross-Contamination
Dangerous disease-causing germs can survive on various items used in food preparation, manufacture, and distribution. When food comes in contact with contaminated surfaces like countertops and cutting boards, cutlery like knives and silverware, or unclean food storage containers, it picks up the bacteria, viruses, mold, parasites, or allergens harbored in or on these items.
People to Food Cross-Contamination
People can also transmit harmful contaminants to food during the food preparation process. If their hands or clothing are harboring bacteria and they touch food, this can quickly transfer the bacteria. Similarly, if a person is sick, coughs into their hands, and then touches food, the food can become contaminated. The bacteria or virus can be passed from them to the food they are preparing and, eventually, to another person.
Consequences of Cross-Contamination
Cross-contamination symptoms can be wide-ranging, as consuming tainted food can cause mild to severe illness. The elderly and young children are particularly susceptible to significant complications from ingesting contaminated food.
In many instances, ingesting contaminated food results in an upset stomach, headache, nausea, and gastrointestinal distress. Symptoms of cross-contamination can become severe and can include fever, vomiting, severe diarrhea, bloody stools, dehydration, organ failure, and even death. Because the onset of symptoms might not appear for many hours, days, or weeks after ingesting contaminated food, people often don’t correlate their illness to food poisoning.
How to Prevent Cross-Contamination
Cross-contamination can happen as a result of failing to take required precautions when handling food. While most illnesses from consuming contaminated food are treatable, preventative measures are the best way to address the problem. The following are steps you can take to prevent cross-contamination of food as well as prevent your food from becoming tainted in the first place:
- Wash your hands before and after handling food and after using the restroom. Use hot water and soap and spend at least 20 seconds rubbing your hands together. You can also use sanitizing wipes to help keep your hands clean.
- Wash every surface that comes in contact with food before and after each use. Using disinfecting wipes is the easiest and most efficient way to keep your work area clean, especially if you are using and reusing countertops, cutting boards, and other food preparation surfaces often.
- Clean up spills immediately with disinfecting wipes.
- Avoid meat cross-contamination by separating raw meat and poultry from other foods.
- Marinate raw food in the refrigerator rather than leaving it out at room temperature. Don’t reuse the marinade as a sauce for cooked food unless you boil it first.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables under running tap water before consuming them or using them in a recipe. Even if you are going to remove the outermost layer of a fruit or vegetable — for instance, if you are peeling carrots — wash them first. The utensil you are using to peel or cut them can become contaminated.
- Refrigerate cut vegetables.
- Remove the outer leaves on the heads of lettuce and cabbage and discard them.
- Follow the USDA recommendations to store perishable foods below 40℉ and do not leave perishable foods out for more than two hours.
- Use or freeze leftovers within four days, and reheat them to at least 165℉.
Protect Your Business with Wipes
Cross-contamination poses a significant risk to food safety, as it can transfer harmful pathogens from one surface or food item to another. Consuming contaminated food can result in foodborne illnesses, causing symptoms like nausea, diarrhea, and, in severe cases, hospitalization.
Furthermore, cross-contamination can be particularly dangerous for vulnerable populations, such as older adults, young children, and individuals with weakened immune systems, as it can lead to more severe health complications. Preventing cross-contamination is essential for food safety.
Whether preparing food in a commercial establishment like a restaurant or a manufacturing environment, working with food in some other commercial endeavor, or preparing food in your home, you must always keep your surfaces and tools clean and disinfected. Similarly, hands must be repeatedly sanitized to stave off the possibility of inadvertently cross-contaminating food.
The best and most efficient way to ensure that everyone handling food meets the most stringent sanitary practices is to readily make sanitizing and disinfecting wipes available in all work areas. Fortunately, Wipes.com offers a one-stop shop to procure everything you need to protect your business from becoming the source of foodborne illness due to cross-contamination.
Contact Wipes.com today to learn more.