Modern Food Safety: Taken for Granted
Nowadays we all store our food safely and cook it properly, but even fresh food can harbour scary bugs that can do you real harm.
That said, it’s quite rare for someone to pick up a nasty disease from their lunch – because modern food safety technology is working behind the scenes to make sure you can enjoy fresh food in new ways, all with less risk of getting sick.
Modern food production has massively increased the amount of food we produce and the choice we have on supermarket shelves. However, producing our food in centralised farms and shipping it into cities (rather than everyone growing or hunting their own) presents new food safety challenges–ones which technology has, thankfully, risen to meet.
Animal to human transmitted diseases: keeping animals healthy
When farm animals get sick, those infections can often spread through the food chain—to us. Cows with the bacterial infection tuberculosis (TB) can transmit the disease to humans through their milk, and chickens with salmonella can pass on this disease to us through their eggs.
The best way to improve food safety and stop transmission of such diseases from animals to humans is simple: stop the animals getting sick in the first place. Vaccinating chickens against salmonella means most of them become immune to the disease, and for any infected chickens, the vaccine makes it more difficult for the salmonella bacteria to penetrate into their eggs. Around 90% of eggs in the UK now bear the Lion Mark,1 which indicates that the egg was laid by chickens vaccinated for salmonella and is safe to eat raw (according to the UK Food Standards Agency).2
Keeping animals healthy isn’t always so straightforward though. For example, decades of extraordinary effort have seen rates of TB in cows controlled, but never fully eradicated.3 Luckily we’ve found another way of improving food safety: pasteurisation. By briefly heating up milk to at least 63°C during processing, farmers can kill the TB bacteria lurking in it without altering its appearance, texture or taste too much.4 That means you can enjoy a cold glass of milk without worrying about catching a potentially lethal disease.
Oxygen & bacterial growth: lock the air out and the freshness in
A rare Angus steak is a thing of culinary beauty to some, but it might have to make quite the journey from Aberdeen to your dinner table. As both the demand for fresh food and the distance between producers and consumers have grown, we’ve developed new ways of extending the shelf life of foods to make sure they can travel further and stay fresher for longer.
One such way is transporting food under a ‘modified atmosphere’. 21% of the air around us is oxygen, which naturally reacts with our food and causes it to change colour and start breaking down. This aids the growth of many types of bacteria and fungi which cause fresh food to spoil. Packing fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish in airtight packages containing very little oxygen slows down these chemical reactions and the growth of most microorganisms, helping extend the shelf life of fresh food.5
This modified atmosphere is the reason why many foods spoil much faster once you open the packet and air rushes in. It’s also why you might detect a strange smell when you first open it up and the modified atmosphere rushes out – some manufacturers add in other gases that help preserve the food (like sulphur dioxide), but these have a natural smell. In the case of sulphur dioxide that smell is pretty pungent, but don’t worry, it’ll pass quickly!
The hygienic benefits of soap & cutlery
Even if there aren’t any bugs hiding in our food, often we add them accidentally at the last minute. Food contamination can lead to gastrointestinal illnesses like Norovirus –particularly if you’ve skipped out on washing your hands after using the bathroom.
Simple technology solutions can make a major difference here: soap and water work wonders for flushing bacteria and viruses down the sink, and using plates and cutlery further reduces the risk of contaminating our food with bugs lurking under our nails. Using disposable cutlery and packaging is an even more hygienic way to eat, but it’s in the world’s bad books at the moment for its environmental impact. Perhaps there’s a compromise–how about edible cutlery, which retains the hygiene benefits of being single-use without the environmental impact?
Food Safety and Ice Cream Cones
There is one form of edible packaging that has held a special place in our hearts for over a century and proven its hygienic credentials. In Victorian London, ice cream was served in small glass bowls called ‘penny licks’, which were often refilled without being washed, leading to fears that ice cream vendors were contributing to the spread of infectious diseases like TB and cholera.6 Because of this, London banned the penny lick in 1899,6 but luckily Londoners didn’t have to go without their ice cream fix for too long: just a few years later the single-use (and undeniably delicious) waffle cone came along and solved the food safety problem for good.
So there’s no need to steer clear of an ice cream on a hot summer’s day – it’s probably made from pasteurised milk, kept frozen, served in disposable (and edible) packaging and contains plenty of sugar, so you don't have to worry too much about getting ill from it.
So, tuck in – though you might want to wash your hands first.