Keep Your Food Safe: 6 Measures To Prevent Food Contamination
Image Credit: Food Hygiene | Image Credit:

It is a basic human right to consume fresh and nutritious food. And yet, many may not be able to enjoy such an indulgence due to food contamination, which is a cause for concern. Food contamination can be defined as the presence of harmful chemicals and microorganisms in food that make it inedible and can cause illness.  

According to the World Health Organisation, unsafe foods contribute to poor health, which includes impaired growth and development, micronutrient deficiencies, noncommunicable and infectious diseases, and mental health. It has been found that one in ten people around the world is affected by food-borne diseases every year. Antonina Mutoro, a nutrition researcher at the African Population and Health Research Centre, explains the causes of food contamination and what can lower the risk of disease.  

Food contamination can take place in physical, biological, and chemical ways: 

  • Physical Food Contamination: When foreign objects find their way into the food, they can cause injury or carry disease-causing microorganisms, which cause illness. For instance, pieces of metal, glass, and stones can cause cuts or damage to the teeth and the insides when consumed without awareness. Besides, hair is another physical contaminant, as it can carry dirt, bacteria, and other micro-organisms present on the human body. It can contain pathogens, especially Staphylococcus, and cause food-borne illness.  
  • Biological Food Contamination: Often, there is the presence of living organisms in food that can contaminate the food, including microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, and protozoa, pests (weevils, cockroaches, and rats), or parasites (worms), which can cause illness. When fruits and vegetables are not washed thoroughly or pests manage to find their way into your cooked food, they contaminate the food before it is consumed. Poor hygiene in treating the produce right before or while cooking the food can lead to this kind of contamination.   
  • Chemical Food Contamination: These include substances like soap residue, pesticide residue, and toxins produced by microorganisms such as aflatoxins that can cause food poisoning, which usually happens when the produce is not washed and cleaned properly before meals are prepared. Unhygienic kitchen conditions and a lack of cleanliness in handling utensils and cutlery can contribute largely to this kind of food contamination.  

What Are The Most Common Causes Of Food Contamination?  

  • Lack Of Hygiene  

It has been found that the main cause of food contamination is a lack of hygiene and poor handling. This means that the cook handling the food preparation may not be following hygiene practises while preparing food or that there is a lack of hygiene in the kitchen. For instance, handling food without washing your hands properly before and after preparing it, after a restroom visit, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing will result in contamination of the food being prepared.  

Fresh food can also cause several illnesses. In Kenya, the contamination of meat, fruits, and vegetables with human waste is quite common. This is attributed to the use of contaminated water to wash foods. Also, the flies carrying contaminants can directly transfer contaminants onto plant leaves or fruits. Street foods are popularly consumed by people in low- and middle-income countries owing to their cheapness and easy accessibility. But they are also a source of food contamination when proper care is not taken, and hygiene instructions are not followed.  

  • Poor Handling Of Food:  

Poor hygiene in the kitchen is another cause for concern. Using dirty utensils, not washing fruits and vegetables before cooking and eating, and storing raw and cooked food in the same place can make the food cooked under these conditions contaminated for consumption. Therefore, it may be best not to allow already sick people to handle food preparation. Besides, you should avoid consuming undercooked foods, especially meat.  

  • Poor farming Practises:  

Poor farming practises can also lead to food contamination. This includes excessive use of pesticides and antibiotics or cultivating fruits and vegetables in contaminated soil and water. Additionally, the use of inadequately composted or raw animal manure or sewage is also harmful.    

What Are Signs That You Have Eaten Contaminated Food?    

As we know, biological and chemical substances are the most common food contaminants that lead to innumerable ailments. They cause more than 200 food-borne illnesses, including typhoid, cholera, and listeriosis. Food-borne diseases usually present as diarrhoea, nausea, and stomach pains. Food poisoning happens when harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins present in the food enter the digestive system and cause symptoms ranging from mild discomfort to severe illness.   

Moreover, food-borne diseases can result in severe cases like neurological disorders, organ failures, or even death. Thus, it is advisable to seek immediate medical attention if suffering from persistent diarrhoea or vomiting after eating or drinking.    

Pregnant women with reduced immunity due to illness or age are vulnerable to food-borne diseases and require extra care and measures. It has been found that children under five years of age are the most vulnerable and susceptible to almost 40% of food-borne illnesses, as a child’s immunity is still developing and can’t fight off infections like adults.  

In low- and middle-income countries, children have reduced immunity, which occurs as a result of malnutrition and exposure to infections due to poor hygiene and sanitation, including a lack of access to safe water and toilets. Also, weak children have a lower appetite, resulting in reduced food intake, further leading to loss of nutrients through diarrhoea and vomiting, causing malnutrition or, in extreme cases, death.  

Besides, food-borne diseases have a negative impact on the economy, especially in low- and middle-income countries. According to the World Bank, it costs more than USD 15 billion annually to treat these illnesses in these countries.  

Food Contamination Can Be Prevented Through Simple Measures    

  • Wash Your Hands: It is important to wash your hands at key times, that is, before preparing, serving, or eating meals; before feeding children; and after a visit to the toilet. Hands are one of the primary vehicles for transmitting harmful microorganisms. Our hands can pick up bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens from various sources, including raw meat, contaminated surfaces, and even from our own bodies.  

  • Wear Clean Clothes During Food Preparation: Garments can harbour dirt, bacteria, and other contaminants that pose a risk to food safety. By wearing clean and hygienic clothes, food handlers reduce the risk of introducing harmful microorganisms and foreign matter into the food they handle, ensuring that the final product is safe for consumption. Protective clothing, such as aprons or hairnets, creates an additional barrier, preventing loose hairs, fibres, or other external elements from coming into contact with the food.  
  • Store Food In Clean And Hygienic Place: Proper food storage is essential for preserving freshness, preventing the growth of harmful bacteria, and minimising the risk of foodborne illnesses.  
  • Washing Raw food With Clean Water: Raw foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and seafood, can harbour dirt, pesticides, bacteria, and other potential contaminants that may be present on their surfaces. By washing them thoroughly under running water, we can effectively remove a significant portion of these contaminants.  
  • Keep Raw And Uncooked Food Separate: Raw foods, such as meat, poultry, and seafood, may carry bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that can cause foodborne illnesses when consumed. By keeping these raw items separate from ready-to-eat foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and cooked dishes, we minimise the risk of cross-contamination. Cross-contamination occurs when pathogens from raw food come into contact with cooked or ready-to-eat food, transferring harmful microorganisms and posing a significant health hazard.  
  • Use Separate Utensils For Meats Or Foods Meant To Be Eaten: Raw meats, poultry, and seafood often harbour harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter. If the same utensils are used for handling these raw foods and cooked foods or ready-to-eat items like salads or fruits, there is a high risk of cross-contamination.