Don't Be Fooled by These Food Safety Myths

There are a lot of misconceptions about food safety. Here are the top 10 food safety myths (and some hard truths)!
July 25, 2019

Despite living in the age of information, there is still plenty of misinformation about food safety and safe food handling practices. To help clear things up, we’ve compiled a list of the top 10 food safety myths.

Top 10 food safety myths

1. COOKED FOOD CAN'T CAUSE FOOD-BORNE ILLNESS

It’s true that properly cooked food is unlikely to cause food poisoning, but there are plenty of ways that cooked food can become contaminated after cooking, making it just as unsafe to eat.

This can happen when:

  • food isn’t stored properly
  • food is prepared on a contaminated surface or using contaminated equipment
  • Food Handlers don’t practice good personal hygiene
  • Food Handlers don’t receive food safety training on how to prevent cross-contamination

In addition, certain bacteria, such as Staphylococcus aureus, produce toxins that aren’t destroyed by high temperatures. If food is contaminated with bacterial toxins, cooking the food may kill the bacteria, but the toxins will remain in the food.

2. IF IT LOOKS FINE AND SMELLS FINE, IT'S PROBABLY SAFE TO EAT

Spoilage microorganisms (some bacteria, moulds and yeasts) can change the look, texture, flavour or smell of food, so it’s easy to tell if the food has gone bad. Pathogens, on the other hand, generally do not cause food spoilage and they are odourless and tasteless, so you can’t tell when food is contaminated with them.

Pathogens are disease-causing microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, parasites and some moulds. The most common food-borne pathogens in Canada are Salmonella, Listeria, Norovirus, Campylobacter and E. coli 0157.

3. IF YOU CUT OFF THE MOULD, THE REST OF THE FOOD IS FINE

Many people think that if you cut or scrape the mould out of food, the rest of the food is safe to eat; the colourful patches of mould you see on the surface are actually just the tip of the iceberg.

Like plants, moulds produce thread-like roots that extend deep into the food. Most mould found on food products is harmless, but some moulds can produce mycotoxins, which are toxic to humans and can cause serious illness.

Foods that are most at risk include:

  • grains, peanuts, nuts and pulses (many mycotoxin types)
  • milk and milk products (aflatoxin)

Aflatoxins are particularly potent and have even been linked to long-term health issues like cancer and immune deficiencies.

4. IT'S OK TO THAW FROZEN FOOD AT ROOM TEMPERATURE

If we had a nickel for every time we heard this we’d have a lot of nickels. To be absolutely clear: you should never defrost frozen food at room temperature or in a warm water bath.

High-risk foods must be kept out of the Temperature Danger Zone (4°C–60°C), as this is the temperature range in which dangerous bacteria thrive. In fact, bacteria are among the fastest reproducing organisms in the world, doubling every four to 20 minutes. Freezing doesn’t actually kill bacteria (another myth), which means that as your food thaws, bacteria can reawaken and multiply.

The safest way to thaw frozen food is in the refrigerator, so plan ahead and give it plenty of time. If you absolutely must thaw frozen food in the sink (which we do not recommend), use cold running water.

5. DRIED FOODS AREN'T HIGH-RISK FOODS

Bacteria need the following to grow:

  • food (high in protein)
  • low acidity
  • moisture

When you add water to dried foods (e.g. rice, pasta, lentils, beans, chickpeas) during the cooking process, you give them the missing ingredient they need to grow. With time and at the right temperature, the number of bacteria can easily reach levels that can cause food-borne illness.

Uncooked rice may also contain Bacillus cereus spores, which are not destroyed by the cooking process. If rice is not refrigerated immediately after cooling, B. cereus spores can grow into bacteria and multiply.

6. YOU SHOULD RINSE RAW CHICKEN BEFORE COOKING IT

Washing raw chicken before cooking it A) does not remove the bacteria and B) can actually increase the risk of food poisoning.

Splashing water from rinsing raw chicken under a tap can spread bacteria to hands, food preparation surfaces, cooking equipment, utensils and anything else within reach (water droplets can travel more than 50cm in every direction). 

7. YOU SHOULD WAIT FOR FOOD TO COOL COMPLETELY BEFORE PUTTING IT IN THE REFRIGERATOR

This one is actually a little tricky. It is true that putting hot food in your refrigerator can cause the overall temperature inside to rise, which is not good for any of the food in there. That being said, waiting for hot food to completely cool at room temperature before putting it in the fridge means that you’re giving bacteria in the hot food time to grow.

The best and safest way to cool your leftovers is to refrigerate them in shallow, uncovered containers once they’ve stopped steaming. Be sure to avoid overstocking your refrigerator to allow cool air to circulate.

8. VEGANS CAN'T GET FOOD POISONING

Anyone can get food poisoning, whether they eat animal products or not. Many of us associate food poisoning with foods like meat, eggs and seafood, but plants and plant-based foods can easily become contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites and naturally-occurring toxins.

Many vegan-friendly foods are also served raw or lightly cooked, such as tofu, which means they aren’t subjected to the high temperatures that kill bacteria during the cooking process. Vegans are also just as likely to get sick from food poisoning caused by cross-contamination. Find out more about vegan food poisoning risks

9. IF YOU PICK IT UP WITHIN FIVE SECONDS, FOOD DROPPED ON THE FLOOR IS SAFE TO EAT

Better known as the 5-second rule, this infamous food safety myth states that if you drop a piece of food on the floor but pick it up within five seconds, you have the green light to eat it without consequence.

We’re sorry to say that it simply doesn’t work that way. If food drops onto a surface with bacteria, then bacteria gets onto the food; five seconds has been proven to be ample time for bacteria to transfer to food.

Something that can affect the likelihood of floor bacteria getting onto dropped food is moisture. If the food is dry (e.g. candy) and the floor is dry, it’s less likely that you’ll get a bug from eating it; however, all bets are off when it comes to carpet, damp floors, gum or ice cream.

10. FOOD POISONING IS JUST AN UPSET STOMACH

Symptoms of food poisoning usually include some combination of the following:

  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • fever
  • vomiting
  • stomach cramps

Although most cases of food poisoning are mild and last only a day or two, some can be far more serious, even deadly. Vulnerable groups, also called “high-risk groups”, are people who are far more likely to contract a food-borne illness, and to suffer severe symptoms — or worse.

Young children, the elderly and people with immune system disorders are among those most likely to die from food poisoning; pregnant women are 20 times more likely to contract listeriosis, an infection caused by the bacterium Listeria, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths, preterm birth, infant mortality, blood poisoning or brain infections.

Thankfully this is rare, but with more than four million cases of food poisoning in Canada each year, a few simple actions can cut the likelihood of food poisoning drastically.

Food safety training

Food businesses need to be extra careful when it comes to food safety, as their policies, procedures and the actions of their employees can affect the health and safety of the public.

When you’re cooking for yourself and you get sick, the consequences (lost wages, pain and suffering) are your own. When you work in a business cooking food for others, food safety slip-ups can have dire consequences for customers, the business, your employer and yourself.

It’s important that Food Handlers know about the health hazards that exist in the business and how to manage them, which is why food safety training must be the highest priority for any food business (and required by law in most provinces and territories). Contact us to find out more about food safety training options in your area.