Going Back to Basics This Food Safety Education Month: What We're Getting Wrong

Going “Back to Basics” This Food Safety Education Month

2015 is a big year for food safety, at least according to the IFIC Foundation Food & Health Survey. This year marked the first time in the survey’s 10-year history where “chemicals in food” has surpassed “foodborne illness” as the most important food safety issue for the American consumer.

With all the headlines about the need to avoid so-called “chemicals” on some blogs and news outlets, it’s not a huge surprise that some of these unnecessary concerns are influencing our perceptions and beliefs about food safety. But it’s definitely a problem: Thousands of families are still affected by foodborne illness each year, even in the face of major advances in technology that help keep our food safe.

We can’t let vague fears about unidentified “chemicals” in food force consumers to lose sight of true risks to their health. It’s time to reiterate the importance of safe food handling, and go back to basics with food safety.

A Shift in Food Safety Priorities

This year, 36% of Americans highlighted “chemicals in food” as the most important food safety issue for them and their family, beating out “foodborne illness from bacteria” (34%). The gain in the number of people citing “chemicals in food” as their top concern is what’s most surprising. Last year, only 23% of Americans chose this option as their top food safety issue. The number of people choosing “foodborne illness from bacteria” has not decreased significantly, but this could be the start of a gradual shift of concern away from foodborne illness and towards “chemicals.”

Foodborne Illness Is Still a Problem

Despite having one of the safest food supplies in the world, Americans are still at risk of getting sick from potentially deadly foodborne pathogens. The CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans get a foodborne illness, with about 3,000 deaths. Proper safe food handling techniques can go a long way toward minimizing the toll of foodborne illness. But with “chemicals in food” overtaking “foodborne illness” as the top food safety concern, is safe food handling going to remain high on the list of priorities? Time will tell.

“Chemicals in Food” and Risk Perception

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To a scientist, the phrase “chemicals in food” may sound silly (given that all food is made up of chemicals). But to consumers, parents, and especially moms, this phrase is scary. Recent research on perceptions among moms of “chemicals” in food sheds some light.

Research showed that many moms view “chemicals” as any ingredient—especially ingredients that are man-made—added to food. This definition of “chemicals” in food is wide-reaching, and even includes many safe and approved food ingredients. The research also showed that the association between “chemicals” and harm to health was pervasive, at least among moms.

So when it comes to “chemicals in food,” consumer perception of risk doesn’t always align with the science.

The responses to the question of the most important food safety issue illustrate the difference between perceived risk and actual risk. Some of us believe “chemicals in food” potentially cause greater harm. In reality, these pose less risk to their health than the bacteria that cause foodborne illness—especially when many of us may be including safe and approved food ingredients in our definition of “chemicals in food.”

Food Safety Education Month is a great time to rethink our food safety priorities. As communicators (and eaters ourselves!), we need to focus on the actionable advice that actually helps to keep food safe, rather than the vague warnings about “chemicals in food.” This means going back to the food safety basics of clean, separate, cook and chill.

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