The spread of disease through food may seem like a thing of the past, but there’s no denying that it still happens today.
Foodborne illnesses such as E.coli and salmonella are an unfortunate reality in our modern world, with nearly 2 million people falling ill every year.
Although these illnesses are often caused by eating improperly cooked meat, they can also be spread when food touches surfaces or hands infected with pathogens.
The risks of cross contamination are even greater for those who suffer from certain health conditions, such as diabetes, which weakens their immune systems.
So how do you avoid becoming sick from cross contamination?
Read on to find out more about what it is, the dangers associated with it, and how best to handle it.
What is cross contamination?
Cross contamination refers to any transfer of harmful bacteria or viruses from one person, object, or environment to another.
This includes touching items that have already been exposed to something infectious, or putting your own bodily fluids into foods.
In the case of food, this can mean putting raw meat onto a plate or cutting board that has been previously used to prepare vegetables.
It can also involve using the same knife or fork to serve multiple guests without washing them first.
What are the dangers of cross contamination?
Foodborne illness outbreaks occur when harmful organisms (such as bacteria) pass from one person, object, or location to another.
While most cases of food-related illness are caused by bacterial pathogens, viral infections can also cause serious harm.
In fact, more than half of all foodborne illnesses are caused by viruses, making them the second leading cause of death due to food poisoning after E.coli.
Foodborne illness can range from mild gastrointestinal issues to life-threatening complications such as kidney failure, meningitis, and sepsis.
If left untreated, foodborne illness can lead to permanent damage or death.
How can you prevent cross contamination?
There are several ways to reduce your risk of contracting potentially dangerous foodborne diseases, including following good hand hygiene practices and following proper food preparation guidelines.
You should always wash your hands before preparing food, and use separate utensils and plates for each meal.
Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.
Also, don’t eat while standing up.
What are some common sources of cross contamination?
While many sources of cross contamination are obvious, others are less so.
For example, it’s easy to see where someone has handled a piece of raw meat, but what about the sink or countertop?
Here are some examples of possible sources of cross contamination and how to avoid them:
Dishwashers: Dishwashers are notorious for spreading germs between dirty dishes.
To avoid cross contamination, always thoroughly clean your dishwasher after each use.
Avoid placing dirty dishes directly in the trash, instead taking them to the kitchen sink first.
Faucets: Faucets can easily become contaminated with germs during a water leak, especially if you leave the faucet running while brushing your teeth.
Always shut off the tap and allow it to drip freely before rinsing.
Refrigerators: Refrigerators can get contaminated from food stored inside them.
Keep produce and other perishable foods away from foods high in fat content, such as bacon.
Cooktops: Cooktops can also become contaminated from cooking utensils, especially when not cleaned properly.
Toasters: Toasters can also carry germs from toast crumbs to the food being toasted.
Make sure to wipe down the area around the toaster with hot, soapy water.
How can you tell if food has been contaminated?
If you suspect that your food has been contaminated, always check the ingredients list first.
If anything doesn’t look right—for instance, if ingredients are listed in Latin or include unfamiliar names—it might be time to throw everything out.
You can also test your food for contaminants by using a food thermometer.
Take a small sample of the suspected food and put it in a bowl of cold water.
Check the temperature of the water for at least 20 seconds, then let it cool completely.
If the water reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius), it means that the food was contaminated by something that caused a food-poisoning illness.
If the water is below 140 degrees Fahrenheit, it means that the food wasn’t contaminated.
What are the symptoms of cross contamination?
Depending on the pathogen involved, you can experience a wide variety of symptoms ranging from mild stomach upset to deadly complications such as meningitis and septic shock.
Symptoms of foodborne illness depend largely on the type of germ involved.
Some of the most common signs of food poisoning include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, and dizziness.
Some infections can last for only a short amount of time, while others can remain dormant indefinitely.
However, if you develop any symptoms of a foodborne illness within two days of consuming tainted food, seek medical attention immediately.
How can cross contamination be treated?
When treating cross contamination, focus on preventing further exposure to pathogens.
Wash your hands frequently throughout the day, clean your dishes in a sanitized dishwasher, and never reuse your utensils.
If you suspect that your food has been contaminated, discard it immediately and contact a local health department for guidance.
Is cross contamination contagious?
No, cross contamination isn’t contagious itself.
However, it can be transmitted via direct contact with an infected person or contaminated surface.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 6 foodborne illnesses are transmitted by contaminated food handlers, so if you work in a restaurant, make sure to always wash your hands carefully prior to preparing food.
What is the incubation period for cross contamination?
It depends on the pathogen involved.
Bacterial pathogens generally take longer to incubate (i.e., grow).
Viral infections, however, tend to incubate faster because they require very few cells to multiply.
For instance, the incubation period for Salmonella is approximately 4 hours, whereas Norovirus takes 12 hours to incubate.
The incubation period can vary depending on many factors, such as the age of the victim, whether the victim consumed alcohol before getting sick, and the specific strain of virus.
What are some longterm effects of cross contamination?
Because cross contamination can cause severe, even fatal consequences, it’s important to act quickly to protect yourself and others.