Cross-Contamination Conundrum

In today’s fast-paced world, we often don’t stop to think that the meal we’re eating may be our last. It’s not a pleasant thought and it is easier to dismiss the notion as something that happens to other people in a far-off place. However, each year it is a reality for 5,200 Americans and their families.

Even if it doesn’t end in death, foodborne illnesses affect almost all Americans at least once a year, 76 million illnesses annuall, federal agencies estimate. Usually, these illnesses are mild and won’t slow down a healthy adult, but 20 percent of foodborne illnesses are severe enough to require hospitalization. On top of that, 2 to 3 percent of these acute illnesses develop life-long complications such as hemolytic uremic syndrome. One of the leading reasons so many people get sick from food each year is cross-contamination.

So, if cross-contamination kills, then why do we let it happen?

Nobody would arrive at work in a restaurant with the deliberate intention of making others sick, especially if it could result in the death of a customer. Unfortunately, some restaurants have unintentionally caused customers to become ill from the food they have served and some patrons were unable to recover from their illness. For the offending restaurants, it’s a tough lesson to learn and the price they have paid is steep.

One large chain spent $58 million settling lawsuits after a foodborne outbreak and saw sales decrease by 5 percent. Another chain could only watch as the value of their stock plummeted by 61 percent after they were implicated in a foodborne outbreak. The damage also extends into other areas of society through the loss of productivity. It is estimated that E. coli contagion alone costs the U.S. millions each year. Thankfully, most restaurants who have caused foodborne illnesses take the lessons they have learned seriously and become the models of food safety.

By definition, cross-contamination is the transfer of disease-causing microorganisms, such as bacteria and viruses, from one food to another. This transfer can happen a variety of ways. Contaminated food may come in direct contact with other foods or one food may drip contaminated juices on another food. Another way cross-contamination can happen is for uncontaminated food to come in contact with a contaminated utensil, piece of equipment, or work surface. Food workers are the last means of cross-contamination. Handling foods with dirty hands or wearing soiled uniforms can result in the spread of pathogens throughout the kitchen.

Often, the cause of illnesses linked to ice is handling ice with contaminated hands or utensils. Contaminants are then on the ice, which can be further spread to beverages or foods stored on ice, such as in salad bars.

As food travels through the kitchen, there are many opportunities for it to become of cross-contamination. In receiving, leaky boxes and broken cartons may spill contaminants into other cases. If ready-to-eat foods are stored under raw meats in the cooler, juices from the meat may drip on the foods ready to be served and contaminate them.

However, the greatest threat of cross-contamination foods face is in the prep area of the kitchen. Not properly washing and sanitizing cutting boards and knives between tasks is an enormous problem. Using an unsanitized towel to clean a food prep table can spread bacteria all over the surface of the table, which can then be passed to foods. Employees who do not wash their hands between tasks, especially between handling raw meats and cooked foods, are very likely to be the culprit if a foodborne illness occurs. Putting cooked meats back in the container that held them when they were raw is a disaster waiting to happen.

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