You know that saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” Well that is super applicable to food safety and preventing foodborne illness!
Let’s be honest, is skipping simple food safety precautions really worth the risk of food poisoning? I could get super graphic with the details but let’s just say I doubt any of us wants to be stuck on the toilet whilst also holding a bucket or trash bin in front of our faces.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 pathogens are known to cause foodborne illness and there are countless unidentified agents that can cause sickness as well. Approximately 48 million people get sick and 3,000 die from foodborne illness every year in the United States. That’s just too many!
Certain populations are at a greater risk of food poisoning due to weaker immune systems, including young children, seniors, people who are pregnant and those with diseases that compromise their immunity (such as HIV and those who are undergoing cancer treatment).
While most foodborne pathogens come from animal foods, that doesn’t mean plant-based foods can’t make you sick. Run-off from animal farms contaminate water sources used for produce farming and there may be cross-contamination at the farm, during handling in restaurants and in your home. Most pathogens are killed during adequate cooking, but when contaminated fruits and vegetables are eaten raw, that is where you run into trouble.
It’s important to always wash produce before eating, and if there are animal-based foods in your house, always use separate knives and cutting boards. And obviously, always wash your hands before food prep and eating and after using the restroom and handling animals and animal waste!
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s do a little myth-busting. Do any of these food safety myths surprise you?
Vegan Food Doesn’t Require Refrigeration
Just because a food doesn’t contain animal products, doesn’t mean it’s immune to spoilage. Perishable foods should not be left at room temperature for more than 2 hours or outside in heat 90℉ or higher for more than 1 hour. Hot foods should be held at 140℉ or higher and cold foods should be refrigerated below 40℉ or frozen below 0℉. Temperatures between 40℉ and140℉ are known as the “danger zone,” where harmful pathogens can multiply rapidly (even on vegan food).
Perishable food includes cut/peeled fruits and vegetables, open containers of plant-based milk, meat and cheese, and leftovers. If you have perishable food that will be out of the fridge for more than 2 hours, be sure to pack a cooler and lots of ice or cold packs to keep them below 40℉ (or a warming device to hold hot foods above 140℉). Use a thermometer to ensure temps are safe.
It’s OK to Thaw Foods on the Counter
It’s safest to thaw foods in the refrigerator or in a sealed package in a cold water bath (with water that is changed every 30 minutes). When you let foods thaw on the counter, they’re in that temperature danger zone in which harmful pathogens can multiple. Plan ahead so you have time to thaw foods in the refrigerator, or use the defrost setting on your microwave and consume or cook promptly.
Eggless Dough is Safe to Eat
You might think vegan dough is safe to eat raw since it doesn’t contain eggs, but eggs aren’t the only raw dough ingredient that can cause foodborne illness. Raw flour has been implicated in some food poisoning cases related to E. coli and the FDA advises against eating raw dough, even if it doesn’t contain eggs. As tempting as it might be, resist sampling your goodies until they’re baked.
Foods Must Be Discarded After the Use By Date
Some people get overzealous about food safety and throw away perfectly safe food. Unfortunately, dates on food packaging are confusing. The “use by” date indicates quality, not safety (except for infant formula). “Sell by” does not indicate safety either.
So how do you know how long a food will keep? StillTasty is a handy website that offers guidelines on the shelf-life of different foods (and they source info from the CDC, FDA and USDA). Also, here is some info on how long foods will maintain quality. For packaged foods, refer to the manufacturer guidelines on how long foods will keep once opened.
Clean-looking Water Found in Nature is Safe to Drink
No matter how clear and fresh an outdoor water source appears, never drink it without proper sanitation. This also applies to water sources in flooded areas after a storm or hurricane. Tiny microbes may appear invisible but they can do serious and sometimes life-threatening damage. There are many ways to purify contaminated water, from filters and chlorine tablets to bleach and boiling.
Did I miss any common food safety myths? Let me know!