Why The Causes Of Food Poisoning Are Hard To Avoid

2011-06-02 | |
Last updated: 2011-06-02

How Does Contamination Enter Our Food System?

While it may seem appropriate to blame food contamination on the modern food industry, doing so is neither accurate or effective in identifying the real, more specific source of our ills. The food that arrives on our plate is the result of numerous contributors in a complex web of connections. To understand the, we can take vegetables as an example.

Food contamination during production

Growing vegetables does not simply start with planting seeds in the ground and watering. Before seeds are ever planted, the soil has been there for generations and civilization has sprawled around it. As a result contaminated soil can be a problem especially in countries with little to no enforcement of environmental regulations.

As an example, much of the garlic and ginger now in our produce markets is coming from China. This is a country where pollution is rampant even to the point where farmers risk prison time for protesting against industrial pollution to their lands. It was only 2005 when farmers south of Shanghai attacked a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant that had significantly polluted their land.

Toxic chemicals and industrial residue are not the only way in which the soil can be contaminated. Improperly composted manure used as fertilizer can contain bacteria that can enter plants. E. coli, salmonella and listeria bacteria can all be present in the soil. Plants including lettuce and watermelon can readily develop populations of these bacteria within their tissues from even a tiny surface wound of the plant. This means that no amount of washing by a consumer can remove the bacterial contamination of the plant.

Food contamination in transportation

Further along the process from field to plate, the farmers and distributors of the vegetables can both cause contamination of the food through unsanitary food storage and poor control of refrigeration temperatures. A warehouse full of food can quickly attract, rodents, insects and birds if not properly managed. These creatures can all contaminate the stored food through their feces or infections that they carry. Only in December did the FDA shutdown a warehouse from New Mexico that was storing contaminated chili products.

Taking this one stage further, cross contamination may also occur if different food types come into contact with one another. Vegetables with only surface contamination by bacteria can contaminate meat or grain products if stored or transported together.

In addition to foods contaminating one another, affected packing materials can cause cross contamination. Both mold and bacteria can readily live in the fibers of cardboard food containers only to contaminate any food with which they come into contact. As well, cardboard used to store non-food items can contain toxic chemicals that persist in the cardboard following recycling. This can then contaminate the food stored in the recycled material.

Nearing the end of the food journey, as we get closer to having the food on our plates, the supermarkets that ultimately sell the food to us can also cause contamination through the same types of unsanitary practices that affect some farmers and warehouse operators.

Food poisoning in the home

Lastly as the food moves from supermarket to our homes, the last risks become present. Poor packaging of our foods in the grocery bags can lead to contamination and food poisoning. Unclean reusable grocery bags also cause the same problem. Leaving food too long in a warm vehicle trunk on the way home from the grocery store can allow bacteria and parasites to reproduce rapidly.

Once in the home our own direct choices in handling food can subsequently lead to illness. Preparing poorly washed foods on poorly sanitized counter tops and cutting boards can lead to cross contamination of food during preparation. Eating something that has been in the fridge or on the counter too long can easily result in food poisoning. Eating the leftovers after a potluck or picnic when the food has been unrefrigerated for hours can yield the same result.


When we look in depth at the complexity of getting food from farm to plate, it is not surprising that food poisoning and contamination are as common as they are. With so many parties involved in the process, there are numerous points at which the safety of our food can be compromised. Whether it be from negligence, incompetence or a lack of available knowledge regarding particular risks, the safety of our food is constantly under threat.

This is not a problem to be blamed on the entire food system, however. Instead, it highlights the need to ensure effective and consistent monitoring of the system by the government bodies we have entrusted with this task. For the most part, they do an acceptable job, but there is always room to improve. It means watching our governments to ensure that economic interests do not undermine food safety efforts. Lastly, it means recognizing that we individuals are a part of the food system and are responsible for protecting the safety of the food that we and our families will consume.


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Category: Disease Prevention, General Health, Health Risks

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