Food safety is everyone’s business on World Food Safety Day

It’s always, “don’t eat raw chicken”, “wash your vegetables”, or “watch out for fish bones”. But never, “make sure your food is safe”.

The five second rule may not be a food rule that we should follow. Dispelling this “rule” as a myth, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that microorganisms can reach our food and cause diseases within less than five seconds of touching the floor.

The WHO and the United Nations (UN) celebrated World Food Safety Day on 7 June, with the 2022 theme, “Safer Food, Better Health”.

“There is no food security without food safety. Only when food is safe will it meet nutritional needs and help adults to live an active and healthy life and children to grow and develop,” the WHO said.

What is food safety? 

Food safety goes beyond the moment a bite of food touches our lips. It accounts for the entire food chain. A safe food supply chain paves the way for the delicious, nourishing and safe food that we food consumers reap the benefits of. 

Above all, food safety is the pursuit to protect against illness and disease that comes from eating food that is contaminated, ill-prepared or expired. Our food goes through a lot of hands to ensure it’s safe before we get to eat or cook.  

Noting that there are an estimated 600-million cases of foodborne illnesses annually, the UN said “unsafe food is a threat to human health and economies, affecting vulnerable and marginalised people … An estimated 420 000 people around the world die every year after eating contaminated food.” 

That is why food safety is so important to consumers and cooks alike, even though it is something so many take for granted. We expect the food we buy from supermarkets and order from restaurants to be safe and edible, however, there are many people around the world who have no choice but to risk consuming potentially unsafe food or water in the name of not going hungry. 

South Africa’s 2018 listeriosis outbreak that affected people who ate polony processed by Enterprise Foods is only one of many outbreaks, which highlights the power food manufacturers have over the health of consumers. At least 216 people died and more than 1 000 people were infected as a result of eating poorly-regulated polony, a previous Mail & Guardian investigation reported. 

Even the shortage of baby formula in the US is a result of poor food supply chain management that poses danger to the lives of infants. Cronobacter sakazakii, a bacteria that we can commonly find in our kitchen sinks, – but deadly to infants – made its way into an entire batch of baby formula, forcing a recall and radical shortages that impact on infant health. 

Food safety is everyone’s business 

From the workplace to schools, street food to our own homes, food safety is everyone’s business. The food that we put in our mouths can be said to be the beginning of everything. 

In home kitchens, food safety is literally in our hands when considering food, nut or dairy allergies. This is why we wash our hands and fresh produce brought home from supermarkets. The WHO’s “five keys to safer food” are to keep clean; separate raw and cooked food; cook thoroughly; keep food at safe temperatures; and use safe water and raw materials. 

You may have also seen videos and TikTok videos about washing your chicken before cooking it, but the WHO also dispelled this as a myth. This has no impact on the hygiene of the breast, as water can contain microorganisms that are passed on to hands, chicken and cooking utensils. 

Supermarkets have to keep stock of food that makes its way on and off the shelves with expiration dates, freshness standards and quality control. Food safety is imperative to the food that consumers eventually take home. 

Food safety can make or break the reputation and finances of restaurants and street food vendors alike. According to the WHO, street food – beyond its delicious convenience and flavour – feeds more than 2.5-billion people globally, every day. Whether it’s conscious or not, especially in the pandemic times we’re living in, food safety is a culture. We’re already familiar with kitchen staff wearing gloves and hair nets, storing ingredients properly, disclosing allergens in dishes and even undergoing specialised training to handle delicacies. 

Cooks and foodies alike are encouraged to continue to take little co-steps towards a better, safer food system. Safe food is essential to human health and well-being. So the next time you drop a chip and want to shout “five second rule”, remember that it’s not a rule.

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Kimberley Schoeman
Kimberley Schoeman is a sophisticated and eccentric wordsmith at the Mail & Guardian. A tastemaker in the making, she is in pursuit of the best in culture, fashion, and style.

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