What is Food Safety and why is it important for you?

What is Food Safety and why is it important for you?

What is Food Safety and why is it important for you?

Food safety is the process used to prevent you from getting sick from the food you eat. It is important because it keeps you healthy.  The USDA defines food safety as “…the conditions and practices that preserve the quality of food to prevent contamination and food-borne.” 

Experts estimate that 1 in 6 Americans become sick from food every year!  By understanding food safety, you can reduce your likelihood of becoming sick. 

Food Safety is “…the conditions and practices that preserve the quality of food to prevent contamination and food-borne.”


Food safety covers the entire range of processes from harvesting, to processing, distribution, storage, selection, preparation, all the way through consumption. Within the Food Industry, Food Scientists and Technologists work to ensure the food you eat is safe

Spoiled foods and unsafe foods are not the same thing

First, it is important for you to understand food spoilage.  Food spoilage is a change that happens to food that causes it unfit to eat. These undesirable changes happen to the color, taste, texture and/or smell of normal food.  When consumed, the spoiled food may or may not be harmful to you. 

Sliced tomatoes can become soft as a result of food spoilage.  Food Safety is it important so you can determine if a product has spoilage and is unsafe
As an example, a tomato may become soft due to spoilage, but you will not become sick after eating it. 

What causes food spoilage?  

First, food spoilage happens by contamination or naturally occurring enzymes that cause deterioration of the food. 

Even so, spoiled food is not always the same as unsafe food.  Food spoilage does not always cause you to become sick or contract an illness. 

As an example, a tomato may become soft due to spoilage, but you will not become sick after eating it. 

What is unsafe food?

Next, it is important to define unsafe food.  Unsafe food is food that makes us sick after we eat it. 

Food can make us sick from a variety of ways, including microbes, physical contaminants, environmental toxins, harmful additives, and presence of allergens. 

FDA Foodborne Illness Infographic.  Food Safety is important for you so you are not 1 of the 6 American getting sick each year.
FDA Foodborne Illness Infographic

Examples of unsafe food include uncooked foods of animal source, unwashed fruits and vegetables, and raw shellfish containing marine biotoxins.

When a food is deemed unsafe the food is recalled

A recall occurs when someone deems a food or food product as unsafe.  A food is recalled when a food producer takes a product off the market.  Recalls may be volunteer or mandatory depending on the situation. 

Food recalls may happen for many reasons.  The United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, and Food and Drug Administration, FDA, have real-time notices and alerts for food recalls and outbreaks

A few examples for Food recalls are:

  • Detection of an organism such as Salmonella
  • Finding foreign objects such as broken glass or metal
  • Unearthing of a major allergen that does not appear on the product label

Why is Food Safety important for you?

Food safety is important to keep you healthy.  Before modern technology and science, people were often sick from food.  You or someone in your family may still get sick from unsafe foods, but the occurrence is less frequent than for your ancestors.

Foodborne illnesses, also called food poisoning, affect millions of Americans each year.  Most foodborne illnesses are preventable.  Foodborne illness outbreaks have devastating effects on public health and occasionally can lead to death.

Foods That Sickened People in Outbreaks with Single Known Source CDC.  Food Safety is important for you because as this chart shows many types of food can sicken people
Foods That Sickened People in Outbreaks with Single Known Source per CDC

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates 48 million (approximately one in six Americans) contract a foodborne illness each year!  Foodborne illness results in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually.  Some experts also believe that at least 50% of all cold and flu cases may actually be foodborne illness. 

4 Types of Food Hazards

A food hazard is anything with the potential to cause negative health consequences to you.  The four main types of Food Hazards are:

  • Physical: The first is physical hazards.  These hazards are physical items in food that were not designed to be in the product.  They could include glass, packaging, jewelry, rocks or screws for example.  Physical hazards do not change the food itself.  For example, chicken nuggets were recalled because a consumer reported rubber in the nuggets in June of 2020.  
  • Chemical: The second is chemical hazards.  They are similar to physical hazards, as they were not planned to be in the product.  The difference is the hazards are chemical instead of physical.  Examples could include water, food contact materials, cleaning agents, pest control substances, pesticides, biocides and food additives.  Again, chemical contaminants do not change the food itself.  A well-known example of this was the 2007 pet food recalls occurred globally because of contamination using melamine as an adulterant.
  • Microbial: Microbiological hazards are the third type of hazard.  Microbiological hazards occur when microorganisms with the potential to cause illness contaminate food.  Microbiological hazards include bacteria, yeasts, fungi and viruses and they cause the majority of foodborne illness.  Today (August 2020) there is a recall of onions due to a microbial hazard, Salmonella.
  • Allergens: The fourth hazard is allergens.  Allergens refer to the risk associated with the unintended presence of one or more of the 8 “major food allergens” as determined by law.  For instance, in May 2020 Ready-To-Eat Pork Skins were recalled because the product contained soy that was not declared on the product label. 
Smiling Flask with orange liquid

Microbial hazards cause the majority of foodborne illness.

Microbial Hazards cause most Foodborne Illness

The majority of foodborne illness are caused by microbial hazards.  Microorganisms can cause illness through a variety of mechanisms.  They most common are through food intoxication and food infection.  Importantly, both intoxication and infection can cause food poisoning (aka food-borne illness).

Food Intoxication

Food Intoxication – For food intoxication, the microbes themselves do not cause food illness.  The food you ingest contains toxins.  Bacteria form these toxins.  Toxins can be harmful to humans and are what make you sick.  Important to note, killing the microbe (or bacteria) may not be enough.  You may still become ill if the toxin is still present without the microbe.

A classic example is Clostridium botulinum.  This bacterium produces the botulin toxin, which can be lethal or cause death! 

3 Facts about Clostridium botulinum:

  • Most cases result from home-canned foods that were not properly processed.
  • They need a pH of 4.6 or greater and oxygen free environment (anaerobic).
  • Sodium nitrate prevents the growth in cured and processed meats.
Home canned vegetables including okra, cucumbers, carrots, squash in wooden cabinet.  Home canned vegetables are the top cause of clostridium botulinum.
Most cases caused by Clostridium botulinum result from home-canned foods that were not processed properly.

Food Infections

As noted earlier, both intoxication and infection can cause food poisoning.  Ingestion of food containing live bacteria can cause foodborne infection. 

In order to get a food infection, you must ingest microbes that then grow and establish themselves in your intestines.  These microbes release digestive enzymes that cause illness by damaging body tissue. Bacteria, parasites, and viruses can all cause food infections. 

Bacterial Food Infections

The first type of food infection is from bacteria.  You likely know by now to be careful with raw chicken and eggs.  The reason you should use extra caution is that they can contain Salmonella, which causes salmonellosis.  Luckily, less than 1% of reported cases of salmonellosis are fatal.  Nevertheless, eggs involved in 75% of outbreaks (per CDC). 

Nevertheless, other foods like poultry (chicken), beef, dairy products, and pork can cause infection.  The best way to minimize your risk is to take care to prevent contamination during food preparation.

Brown Egg in shock looking at fried egg in front of him.  He is surprised because eggs are involved in 75% of salmonella outbreaks
This brown egg is surprised to learn that eggs are involved in 75% of Salmonella outbreaks

Parasitic Food Infections

The next infection type, parasitic infection, seems much scarier.  Parasitic infections are not as common in the US as food intoxication or bacterial infections. 

Furthermore, contaminated water sources are usually the source for a parasitic infections In addition, animals consuming contaminated water can have these parasites.  Additionally, produce cleaned with the contaminated water can cause this illness. 

Luckily, in the US water contamination is rare.

Viral Food Infections

The final type of infection is viral infections.  Unlike bacteria, viruses do not multiply in food.  However, food can transmit viruses through them. 

The most common viruses that cause foodborne illness are Rotavirus, Norwalk, and Hepatitis.  For all three of these, hand washing and proper sanitization can eliminate them.

How can you keep yourself safe?

According to CDC, there are five germs that cause the majority of food poisoning and four that lead main ones that lead to hospitalization.  Germs are microorganisms that cause disease. 

Understanding the top culprits can help you focus your effort.  Follow these basic to minimize your likelihood of food poisoning – Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill.

FDA Simple Food Safety: Clean Separate Cook Chill.  Use these basic steps to minimize your potential for getting foodborne illness.
Use these steps to keep yourself safe
  1. The first step is to clean.  Always clean by washing your hands and surfaces.
  2. Second is to separate.  Separate products that may lead to cross-contamination.  Think about raw meat and fish versus fresh product. 
  3. The third step is cook.  Make sure you cook your food to the right temperature for the necessary amount of time
  4. The last and very important step is chill.  Promptly refrigerate cooked and prepared food.  You should be refrigerating food within 2 hours of cooking

Focus on these top germs and microbes

The top five germs that cause illnesses from food eaten in the United States are Norovirus via Food Infection, Salmonella via Food Infection, Clostridium perfringens via Food Intoxication, Campylobacter via Food Infection, and Staphylococcus aureus via Food Intoxication.

Top 5 Germs that cause Foodborne Illness.  Focus on eliminating these for Food Safety
Top 5 Germs that cause Foodborne Illness

Alternatively, some do not cause as many illnesses, but when they do, the illnesses are more likely to lead to hospitalization.  Those germs include: Clostridium botulinum (botulism) via Food Intoxication, Listeria via Food Infection, Escherichia coli (E. coli) via Food Intoxication, and Vibrio via Food Infection.

Top Germs Leading to Foodborne Illness Hospitalization.  Focus on eliminating these for Food Safety
Top Germs Leading to Foodborne Illness Hospitalization

Impact on the Economy

The USDA estimates foodborne illnesses cost $15 billion or more annually.  Above all, the total cost is hard to calculate but indicate a significant impact. 

By preventing foodborne illness, you help reduce the burden to the economy.  Also, tell those you love how to protect themselves.

Food Workers must understand Food Safety to keep you safe

Understanding of food safety is critical for everyone working in the Food Industry.  Importantly, Food Scientists work to understand how pathogens enter the food supply in order to eliminate them. 

Handling procedures must be implemented base on the type of food being prepared or processed at home and in food manufacturing sites. 

Along with this, when product developers work on new products, they are consider food safety at every stage.  For example, the pH, amount of free water and other factors play a major role in the decisions around preservation and processing.

What is Food Safety and why is it important for you?

As consumers, home cooks, and lovers of food you all can follow guidelines to ensure you are properly preparing foods.  Proper handling is important to reduce illness for you and your loved ones. 

Furthermore, when you eat out or pick up food that’s already made look it is important to choose safe, sanitary suppliers and restaurants. If anything smells off or looks bad, do not eat it. Your health is worth more than one meal!

Ultimately, the goal of food safety is to keep you healthy!

What do you think? Are you ready to practive Food Safety at home?


Food Safety. https://nifa.usda.gov/topic/food-safety#:~:text=Importance%20of%20Food%20Safety&text=Ongoing%20food%20safety%20improvements%2C%20in,healthcare%20system%20through%20improved%20public. Retrieved 11 July 2020

Estimates of Foodborne Illness in the United States.  https://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/index.html.  Retrieved 11 July 2020.

Cost Estimates of Foodborne Illnesses.  https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/cost-estimates-of-foodborne-illnesses.aspx.  Retrieved 11 July 2020.

USDA: U.S. Foodborne Illnesses Cost More Than $15.6 Billion Annually.  https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2014/10/foodborne-illnesses-cost-usa-15-6-billion-annually/#:~:text=USDA%3A%20U.S.%20Foodborne%20Illnesses%20Cost%20More%20Than%20%2415.6%20Billion%20Annually,-By%20Dan%20Flynn&text=New%20data%20from%20the%20U.S.,illnesses%20in%20the%20United%20States.  Retrieved 11 July 2020.

Recalls and Outbreaks.  https://www.foodsafety.gov/recalls-and-outbreaks.  Retrieved 11 July 2020

Types of Hazards.  https://www.fsai.ie/food_businesses/haccp/types_of_hazards.html.  Retrieved 11 July 2020.

Foodborne Illness: Food Safety—A Historical Look.  https://www.brandeis.edu/investigate/food-health/foodborne-illness/history-of-food-safety.html.  Retrieved 11 July 2020.

Keep Food Safe.  https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep-food-safe.  Retrieved 11 July 2020.

Food Poisoning.  https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-poisoning.  Retrieved 13 August 2020.

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