Food safety is one of the most well-researched and scientifically rigorous fields in the world. Developed countries invest significant resources to create and enforce accurate, effective food-safety regulations.
However, as is the case in many scientific fields, myths surrounding proper food safety have surfaced. A number of these myths have persisted for decades, becoming commonly held notions among consumers. For this reason, it is important to be aware of the most common myths regarding proper food handling as well as the scientific misconceptions that have fueled their popularity. In order to minimize their chances of contracting foodborne illnesses, consumers should also become familiar with the scientifically confirmed protocols for safe food preparation.
In no particular order, here are five of the most common food-safety myths:
Myth #1: The process of microwaving food eliminates bacteria.
Fact: Microwaves do not kill harmful bacteria. Rather, it is the circulation of heat that eradicates bacteria, thus lessening the risk of foodborne illness.
Provided that it reaches a sufficient internal temperature, a good microwave will eliminate most or all of the bacteria present in food. However, it is possible for foods to heat irregularly inside of a fully functioning microwave. This is often due to the food’s uneven shape or thickness. Even microwaves with an inner turntable can leave foods insufficiently cooked, thereby making it possible for bacteria to thrive.
To effectively avoid foodborne illness when microwaving or otherwise preparing food, it is essential that people adhere to all cooking instructions. Other ways to prevent the spread of bacteria include intermittently rotating and stirring foods while microwaving them, as well as using a food thermometer to measure the food’s internal temperatures in multiple different areas.
Myth #2: Vegans don’t have to worry about contracting food poisoning.
Fact: Vegans need not concern themselves with food poisoning from eggs, dairy, meat, and poultry, but harmful bacteria can also be present in fruits and vegetables. Thus, it is indeed possible for a vegan to contract a foodborne illness.
It is important for vegans, vegetarians, and all other consumers to thoroughly rinse all produce under running water. This is necessary even for produce with an inedible skin or rind. In addition, consumers should only use running tap water—never bleach products or detergents—to clean fruits and vegetables.
Myth #3: Melons do not require rinsing.
Fact: Many people falsely believe that a melon’s rind guards its inner fruit from harmful bacteria, but cross-contamination is a significant concern when handling any type of produce. Because a knife or peeling tool can carry surface bacteria from the rind of a melon to its flesh, it is necessary to rinse even hard-rind fruits, such as cantaloupes and watermelons. In addition to cross-contamination risks posed by knives and similar tools, bacteria present on melon rinds may also come into contact with the fruit’s flesh in certain serving presentations. Thus, produce with an outer skin or rind still requires a thorough rinsing before it is safe for human consumption.
Myth #4: Cross-contamination doesn’t occur during refrigeration.
Fact: Many types of bacteria are able to survive and even reproduce in cold and moist environments. Listeria monocytogenes, for example, can withstand temperatures ranging from minus 1.5 to 45 degrees Celsius. Moreover, temperatures from 37 to 42 degrees Celsius are the optimal range for growth of the microorganism Campylobacter jejuni.
Given the resilience of certain bacterial strains, it is essential that consumers regularly clean their refrigerators with hot water and soap. In the event of food or liquid spillage, an immediate and thorough cleaning can significantly reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
Myth #5: Rinsing meat, poultry, and seafood juices will eliminate any bacteria
Fact: Ironic as it may seem, the rinsing of meat, poultry, or seafood can actually increase the likelihood of foodborne illness or food poisoning. Even slight water pressure from rinsing can cause meat juices to splash onto nearby counters and sinks, potentially transmitting harmful bacteria.
The safest way to avoid foodborne illness or food poisoning from meat, seafood, or poultry is to adhere to all cooking instructions. People should closely follow all directions for cooking time and temperature, and then test the internal temperature of the food with a culinary thermometer.
Staying Safe and Informed
In addition to these five common misconceptions, many other food-safety myths continue to pose a threat to the health and wellbeing of millions of people. As such, consumers should be aware of the factual alternatives to this dangerous misinformation.
Foodsafety.gov provides concise, easy-to-follow instructions for proper food handling. The federally-owned website organizes the food safety cycle into four simple steps: Clean (hands and surfaces often), Separate (to avoid cross-contamination), Cook (food to the appropriate and recommended temperatures), and Chill (any remaining leftover food).
There is no single foolproof method to completely eliminate the risk of foodborne illness or food poisoning. Certain types of bacterium, such as Listeria monocytogenes, can live and thrive in a multitude of environments. For this reason, it is important that consumers follow all scientifically proven food safety steps every time they cook.