Ensuring food safety requires the proper handling, preparation, and storage of food, as well as adequate sanitation and hygiene practices in food production and processing. Whilst the food industry must follow established regulations and guidelines to ensure food safety, there are still a number of common myths around food safety that many people believe are facts. Let’s take a look at these myths and separate fact from fiction:
Myth 1: The ‘Five Second Rule’.
There is a common belief that suggests that if you drop food on the floor and pick it up within five seconds then it is still safe to eat. The idea is that bacteria take time to transfer to the food, and if you retrieve it quickly enough then the food hasn’t had time to pick up harmful germs.
Fact: Although many experiments have been carried out looking at the truth behind the five second rule, no scientific evidence has been able to prove that it is safe. Bacteria can contaminate food as soon as it hits the floor, and the longer it spends there, the more bacteria may be attached to it. So, for safety reasons, if food falls on the floor, the safest option is to throw it away.
Myth 2: You don’t need to wash fruits and vegetables if you’re going to peel them.
Fact: Even if you’re planning to peel your fruit or vegetables, it’s important to wash them thoroughly first. This will remove any dirt, bacteria, or pesticides on the surface of the produce, reducing the risk of contamination. It’s also a myth that this rule doesn’t apply to organic fruit and vegetables – bacteria can come from the soil, from birds and insects that may have landed on the produce, or even from small animals that may have been in the field where the produce grows. The food could become contaminated during the harvesting process or even during transportation.
Be aware that even foods that will be peeled or cut such as avocados, melons or oranges should still be washed to avoid any bacteria from the outside peel ending up on the edible part. Washing foods before peeling or chopping will also prevent any bacteria from the outer side contaminating your chopping board and utensils.
Myth 3: You should wash meat and poultry before you cook it.
Fact: Although most raw meat will have some bacteria present, washing it does not remove the bacteria. In fact, by washing, you can cause cross-contaminations by spreading the bacteria to surfaces, utensils and your sink. The only safe way to remove the bacteria present inside meat is to cook it to the correct internal temperature (you can check this by using a cooking thermometer). And always remember to wash and dry your hands thoroughly with hot water and soap after handling raw meat.
Myth 4: You can tell if a food is safe to eat by how it looks or smells.
Fact: Some foods have obvious signs that they have ‘gone off’ – such as smell, or appearance. However, bacteria, moulds and yeast present in food are usually only visible under a microscope. According to the Food Standards Agency, the most important date to pay attention to is the ‘Use by’ date as this tells us about the safety of a food. It’s not safe to eat a food that has gone past it’s use-by date, even if it looks and smells OK, it could make you very ill. (The Use-By date is different to the ‘Best Before’ date, see Myth 5 for more information.)
Myth 5: You must eat food before the ‘Best Before’ Date.
Fact: Whereas the ‘Use by’ date is a deadline, the ‘Best Before’ date is a guideline and is about food quality and not food safety. With millions of tonnes of food being wasted in the UK every year, it’s important to understand the difference between these food labels.
Salads and bread are the biggest culprits of food waste, and although eating these foods after the ‘Best Before’ date means that they may not be of the best quality, these foods will not harm you. Fruit might be slightly soft, bread might be slightly stale for example. In fact, some manufacturers have now started removing ‘Best Before’ dates from certain products and allowing consumers to make their own decisions to help tackle the massive food waste problem.
Myth 6: You should wait for food to be completely cold before putting it in the fridge.
Fact: Putting hot food in the fridge risks raising the fridge temperature and increases the possibility of bacteria growing on the other food stored in the fridge. However, leaving food out to cool for more than two hours can also increase the risk of bacteria.
The correct solution is to allow food to cool as much as possible and put it in the fridge no more than two hours after cooking. If you’ve batch cooked a dish such as curry or bolognaise that can take a long time to cool, split it into smaller containers or spread it across a large flat or shallow container to help it to cool quicker.
The exception to this rule is cooked rice. According to the NHS, you should cool rice as quickly as possible, ideally within one hour (you can run it under cold water to speed up the process) and then keep it in the fridge for no more than one day before reheating thoroughly.
Myth 7: It is safe to defrost food overnight on the kitchen worktop.
Fact: It can take hours for some food to defrost. While the centre may still be frozen solid, the outside can be at room temperature and therefore prone to attracting bacteria. The bacteria will cover the surface of the food and continue to multiply before the centre of the food has had chance to defrost, giving you a higher chance of food poisoning. To prevent this happening, food should always be defrosted in the fridge or the microwave. Food that has been left out for more than two hours should always be discarded.
Myth 8: Plastic chopping boards are safer than wooden ones.
Fact: With the recent TikTok craze around boil washing wooden spoons going viral, you may also be tempted to get rid of your wooden chopping board. There’s no need.
In the early 2000s, a scientific study by Dean Cliver and the University of California determined that on wooden chopping boards, bacteria could sink down beneath the surface, but that once it was there, it was unable to multiply and eventually died off. They also found that on plastic chopping boards, bacteria could be caught in knife grooves.
To summarise, both types of chopping board are safe to use, so long as you clean them thoroughly. And remember, it’s important to use separate chopping boards for raw meat and vegetables to avoid cross-contamination.
Myth 9: Most food poisoning comes from food prepared by restaurants or takeaways.
Fact: There is no evidence that food prepared by restaurants or takeaways is more likely to cause food poisoning than food prepared at home. In fact, restaurants and fast-food establishments have legal obligations to undertake Food Hygiene Training and this must be provided to everyone who works in the food industry before they can begin work.
Food poisoning is caused by food that is not cooked or reheated thoroughly, food that’s stored incorrectly or left out for too long, food handled by someone who is unwell or hasn’t washed their hands or food eaten after the use-by date. Foodborne illnesses can occur anywhere food is prepared or consumed, including homes, schools, workplaces, and other settings, through the bad habits we have around food, and our lack of education or training about food safety.
Myth 10: It’s safe to eat raw cake mix / cookie dough.
Fact: Most of us can probably confess to licking the spoon as a child (or adult!) when making a cake. However, we must remember that raw cake mixture and cookie dough contain raw eggs and there is always a small risk of salmonella.
While some people may be happy to take the risk of eating raw cake mix, you also need to be aware of the possible dangers of consuming raw flour, which in the past has been found to be associated with causing E.Coli. Always err on the side of caution and wait until your cake or cookie dough is cooked before sampling!
If you’d like to know more about food standards and safety, or support your staff working within the food industry then take a look at our range of Health and Safety online training courses. Our catalogue includes Food Hygiene Courses for Retail, Catering, and Manufacturing, as well as Allergen Awareness Training, Infection Control, and Achieving Food Hygiene Level 5 Training.