Check your food savvy

April 21, 1998

Have you or people you know been mislead by food safety myths? Misconceptions about food safety abound and can make us sick! Check your food safety savvy against the statements that follow.

Myth: "If it tastes OK, it's safe to eat."

Fact: If you trust your taste buds to detect unsafe food, you may be in trouble. Many people think a food is safe to eat if it tastes, smells or looks all right. The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that over 9,000 people in the United States die yearly from food borne illness. An estimated 6.5 million to 33 million illnesses are linked to food borne pathogens. You can't rely on your sense of taste, smell or sight to determine if a food is safe.

Taking even a tiny bite to test the safety of a questionable food can be dangerous. For some food borne illnesses, such as botulism, eating just a small amount of a contaminated food can be fatal.


Myth: "We've always handled our food this way and nothing has ever happened."

Fact: If you use past experiences to predict whether a food is safe, your future may include a food borne illness. Many incidents of food borne illness went undetected in the past. Food borne illness symptoms of nausea, vomiting, cramps and diarrhea were often and still are blamed on the flu. Also, both the nature of our food supply and the virulence of food borne pathogens has changed.

In the past, the chicken you served tonight might have been walking around the backyard in the afternoon. Today, your food may travel halfway around the world before it arrives at your table. Food often passes from producer to processor to retailer before it reaches you. The opportunities for mishandling are higher.

Many potent forms of bacteria present further problems. For example, in 1990 the U.S. Public Health Service cited E. Coli 0157:H7, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and Campylobacter jejuni as the four most serious food borne pathogens in the United States. Twenty years ago, three of these - Campylobacter, Listeria and E. Coli 0157:H7 - weren't even recognized as sources of food borne diseases.

Myth: "I sampled it a couple of hours ago and never got sick, so it should be safe to eat."

Fact: Your timing may be way off if you believe this myth! Though you may feel all right a few hours after eating a food, the food still may be unsafe for you and others to consume. A food borne illness may develop within 30 minutes to a few days; some may occur as long as two or more weeks after eating a contaminated food. If sickness occurs 24 hours or more after eating a food, which is often the case, it's frequently blamed on other causes.

Another consideration: While you might safely eat a food, someone with a weaker immune system could be more susceptible to food borne illness. Young children, older individuals and persons with an illness are more vulnerable and would be more likely to get sick.

Finally, if you guess wrong about the safety of a food, you and those you serve, may feel more than a few hours of discomfort. Some food borne illnesses can last several weeks or longer and require hospitalization. Some can be fatal.

A new consumer food safety campaign, "Fight Bac," was launched this past fall by the Partnership for Food Safety Education to help educate the public about food safety. The campaign focuses on four critical messages:

Clean - Wash hands and surfaces often;

Separate - Don't cross contaminate;

Cook - Cook to proper temperature; and

Chill - Refrigerate promptly.

Many people won't change their minds about food safety misconceptions until they or members of their families become sick. You only need an extra minute or two to wash hands, clean a cutting board, cook a food to a recommended temperature and refrigerate foods promptly. This is a small price to pay to help ensure that you, family members and friends avoid food borne illnesses.

For information on "Fight Bac," send a self-addressed, stamped (32 cents) envelope to the Cooperative Extension Service, 1260 Maryland Ave., Hagerstown, Md. 21740. Mark the envelope, "BAC."

The Maryland Cooperative Extension Service's programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

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