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I am surprised by the number and contents of question concerning food safety. Please do not take this as an assertion about non existence of microbic contamination or to ridiculize anything / anyone. I am just interested if there were / are campaigns going on and if possibly they are related to marketing (sealed boxes, fridges, no really idea about).

I am asking this because I am astonished by the level to which those concerns are carried, like "can I eat half banana that was left on the cutting board for half a hour? " or "my bread touched a plastic bag which is not food compatible, it is now poisonous? " to invent examples of the sort of questions I am referring to.

In spite I do not have desire of making fun, some of those questions look indeed ridiculous - I refere to extremes as above, of course.

It is like refrigerators are assumed to exist since the ancient times or more realistically they accessible to every human population on earth. I really wonder of the possible reasons of this way of thinking that, if translated to other activities - such as working, driving, doing sports or crossing a road - would made the life almost impossible.

migrated from cooking.stackexchange.com May 22 at 16:58

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    I share your curiosity ..but this looks like a meta-question to me – Robin Betts May 22 at 11:02
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    I agree it's a meta question because I complained about the same thing not long ago. The problem is brought on by the so-called "news" media which carries stories to bring up fear and concern in order to bring in viewers and, therefore, advertising dollars. That's why, every day, you hear, "A new medical study shows..." and now you will die!!!! Note: I worked in television news for 10 years (not as a reporter) and my niece is a news producer for a major television station. – Rob May 22 at 11:07
  • I thought it may fill in but indeed I felt that it could be kind of off-topic. @Rob and Robin Betts I can also add that I feel to be mostly US oriented and spreading, but didn't mention to avoid possibly divisive arguments. – Alchimista May 22 at 11:13
  • @Rob shall I delete it? Your comment is the most plausible answer. Indeed is the same strategy for which evey week a miraculous root or fruit appears on media, to disappear and then be revived some point later. – Alchimista May 22 at 11:20
  • After you've spent two days in the bathroom with massive stomach cramping, you'll understand. (mine's food intollerance, so it can happen quite easily). But I have no idea how strong other people's immune systems are, so unless I know you, I wouldn't wish it on you. (I'd go with the "I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy", but that's not true) – Joe May 22 at 11:42
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    It is a hard balance between seeing people who think it is fine to leave raw chicken on a counter for days or use the oven as extra storage for left over food (Don't laugh, I live with someone who does these), because they have done it for years and not died yet, and those that are afraid that having old food withing the same ZIP Code as your dinner will kill you on the first whiff. As someone who has been stuck with food poisoning, I am cautious but try to stay within the spectrum of moderation. But I too shake my head at the extremes. – dlb May 22 at 13:17
  • Yes I refer to extremes of course, I think I will add it to the Q. @Joe and dlb. – Alchimista May 22 at 16:47
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    Most folk have never taken Bacteriology or Food Safety instruction. That leaves them guessing, and paranoia often supplies the safest guess. – Wayfaring Stranger May 22 at 23:05
  • Definitely not just a US phenomenon. Recent example from Germany: A fast food restaurant owner insisted that (deep fried) beef and chicken burger patties may not, under any circumstances, be allowed to touch because that would create (sic!) salmonella. – Ruther Rendommeleigh May 24 at 11:56
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    @Ruther Rendommleigh ok but I thinking of people in their own kitchen. It is clear that a standard and safety practice must be at place in chain and business food handling and preparation. – Alchimista May 24 at 12:48
  • @Alchimista Not sure what any of this has to do with "standard and safety practice". The meat was already cooked and, I would assume, perfectly safe for consumption. – Ruther Rendommeleigh May 24 at 12:55
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    @RutherRendommeleigh having seen the fallout when "chicken" fajitas had beef in them (same utensils used to assemble them) and were served to Hindus, the restaurant owner was right for the wrong reasons. – Chris H May 29 at 10:25
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    @Chrus H Exactly. Indeed my Q is for private kitchen and "chefs". Overall scenarios and big distribution is totally another story but I wasn't perhaps clear enough. ... – Alchimista May 29 at 11:48
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Without surveying users here, these questions appear to be predominantly from American users. I think there are cultural differences between the US and Europe that explain some of it, but the differences are due to larger issues than just food.

In many countries (e.g. most of the EU), a mild case of food poisoning leads to a couple of days of unpleasantness, and that's all. Even a severe case leading to a hospital stay wouldn't have major effects: I would still get paid and my job would be safe, the treatment wouldn't cost me a penny. These are very rare, but while the illnesses may be nasty, the real possibility of life-changing medical bills and being fired/loss of income is a major additional fear. Life-threatening or permanently damaging food-borne illnesses are even rarer. As a result we can push the limits in questionable cases and learn from experience.

Part of the cultural difference I mentioned is that Europe has suffered more recently and more severely from food shortages: rationing extended for some years after WWII, from 1940-1954 in the UK (with meat being one of the last rationed foods), while in the US sugar was both the first and last item rationed, from 1942 to 1947. The recollection of food shortages affected attitudes when I was growing up decades afterwards. We also seem to be more tolerant of adequate as opposed to perfect (consider the visual appeal of our fresh produce). This means we're more willing to accept food that's tired or past its best, and more used to making the judgement for ourselves.

  • This is a hasty re-write of an answer I comnposed earlier that was eaten by gremlins before I could post it. – Chris H May 22 at 13:21
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    Though neither side is perfect, eggs can be used as an example of different approaches in UK and EU, and the US. In the US we are plagued with constant stories and misinformation about salmonella in eggs. In exchange, we get scare stories, conflicting reports of causes, and new handling guidelines. In the UK, the reaction to an outbreak was to require birds be vaccinated. In 10 years, a 96% reduction of human cases and now virtually none. EU followed suite. US did not. Somehow, pennies per bird cost to much to protect people from disease.It is better to argue about who is to blame. – dlb May 22 at 15:15
  • Interesting I am not a simple person but it is still interesting to see how far things can go. @dlb and Chris. – Alchimista May 22 at 16:53
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    Ask us about our plastic bag fetish next. – Wayfaring Stranger May 22 at 23:06
  • Although Americans have "free speech", that doesn't mean you can't get sued for it. And there are lots of lawyers in the US. (eg artichokes) Add to that the lax regulations (eg, the salmonella issue), problems with factory farming, and people with weak immune systems (be it biological or induced by environmental factors) – Joe May 23 at 13:48
  • @Joe. Again I was thinking of people in their own kitchen. Anyway the reference to artichoke is indicative of a climate. – Alchimista May 24 at 12:51
  • I think that's a good analysis, @ChrisH. I'd add that systematic use of antibiotics in US farm animals has led to contamination with bacteria that won't just lay you low for a couple days, but can easily lead to kidney failure and death (especially if you don't have functional health insurance). Add to that an FDA eviscerated by the current administration, and it's not unreasonable for a prudent consumer to apply precautions that in other countries would only be justified for institutional establishments. – George M May 25 at 0:24
  • I think this would be a better answer if you focused more on the actual reasons and less on nationality; I've seen plenty of food safety questions from non US people, and plenty more with nothing in them that'd let you infer location. – Cascabel May 31 at 15:24
  • @cascabel, I checked several recent questions (in particular some with titles that seemed rather naive) and many were clearly American. That may have been coincidence - we may just have had a spate of such questions, prompting this question as well as this answer – Chris H May 31 at 15:29
  • @Wayfaring Stranger what about ruined pan skillets and seasoning of them? :)) – Alchimista Jun 11 at 11:37
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As a preface, I'd distinguish between overly concerned questions and cautious answers. We do indeed get questions where the answer is "no, that's totally fine." There are a lot of people out there in the world, and some of them are naturally going to have incomplete information and be worried based on what they do/don't know. We should be kind when answering that sort of question.


As for answers on this site, there are a couple underlying reasons the advice may be more cautious than you'd expect:

  • Every question can potentially have an extremely large number of readers, in a very broad set of circumstances
  • We generally try to avoid making subjective yes/no judgments.

Food safety issues are inherently about risk assessment, and often about fairly small risks. Individuals will often make judgments and decisions that ignore or accept small risks. However, if we do the same in our answers, we will get people sick. Questions routinely get tens or even hundreds of thousands of views. Unlikely scenarios are going to happen. This is why government food safety standards tend to be fairly strict, and we've followed suit.

We also often implicitly and unknowingly make assumptions when writing answers, and while those assumptions may well be warranted for us, they may not be for all readers. This is a global site, with users and readers from all over the world, and if something's not universally true, someone out there can easily

Finally, even assuming we manage to accomplish the impossible task of correctly determining and quantifying the risks, it's still a personal judgment to go from there to a yes/no answer. Every time someone says "eh, it's no big deal, just eat it" they're skipping past all of that risk assessment to a fundamentally subjective conclusion, which isn't generally how we want to answer questions. So it's usually best to instead note that there's some risk, to attempt to describe or quantify it if possible, and to pass along whatever advice may be available from food safety agencies.


Some related reading:

  • Let's all not forget...there is....science. That is what government agencies base their recommendations on...but, they are necessarily conservative. So, one can always go to the scientific literature for more precise information. While individuals have their own risk tolerance...and bacterial tolerance (if you will), answers to food safety questions should be based on known fact so that individuals can make their own informed decisions. – moscafj May 22 at 23:35
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    A nice piece for discussion and elucidation but not truly an answer. It deals mostly to "how to answer". Let me say one thing: food safety regulations target big distribution, restaurants, business, scenario in which without following a strict behavior things end up in a mess. The sort of question which I find overly cautious are about letting a roasted chicken a couple of hours in your oven, not letting raw chickens two hours in a truck. It is like chemical data sheets, if one read them without chemical knowledge it might seems necessary to handle mustard with a respirator. +1 for clarity – Alchimista May 23 at 10:23
  • @Alchimista I'm not entirely sure what about your question I haven't covered. It's not really up to us to come up with some secret common reason for every person who doesn't know something about food safety that you think is obvious, just to handle the questions well. – Cascabel May 23 at 20:10
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    As for the specific note in your comment: this site has far more in common with large-scale scenarios than you seem to think. Sure, we're giving advice to home cooks, but as noted in my answer, that advice is distributed to a large number of people, so the risks that come with that scale are present for us as well. Additionally, advice from food safety agencies is not limited to regulations; they also provide advice to home cooks. For example, the most oft-cited guidance here is on the danger zone, and that's something agencies routinely direct at home cooks. – Cascabel May 23 at 20:14
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    @Cascabel. You clearly explain why and how to answer to safety questions, not to why so many people feel to ask about things that - no need to make epidemiology consideration here - should be answered by common sense and/or basic education. I didn't refeer explicitly to such a questios not to appear irrespectfull to some. Safety regulations are obviously necessary, as so are many laws and regulations. – Alchimista May 24 at 10:31
  • I covered that in the first paragraph. Not everyone has had the education and experience you've had. Common sense isn't magic, it's that prior knowledge plus some inference. Without that foundation, not everyone is going to make the right guesses about what is and isn't safe, and they're going to ask questions whose answers are obvious to us. We should generally try to answer those questions without judging their authors, or move on if we can't manage that. – Cascabel May 24 at 15:23
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A little later in answering this, but as someone who has answered a lot of food safety questions on this site and who has spent a lot of time reading detailed scientific sources on food safety in the process of writing answers, I can conclusively say a few things:

  1. Most people's intuition about food safety is wrong in many cases. They may be right in most cases, but there are a lot of myths out there (both about what is "safe" and what is "unsafe"). You can just look to the history of questions I've answered to see quite a few bits of misinformation that are out there. A couple classic examples: people are bizarrely overly concerned about mayonnaise when commercial mayo isn't dangerous at room temperature (but mayo-based dishes often are, because of other ingredients), while people blithely leave leftovers on the counter to cool thinking that cooked food is "sterile," when some of the most common causes of food poisoning come from mishandling of leftovers (which often still contain bacteria that can grow rapidly). I've certainly discovered quite a few new facts about food safety myself in the process of researching answers here.

  2. Most people adopt an attitude of "I've always done it this way, and nothing bad happened." Except food safety guidelines are trying to mitigate problems in very general cases that may not be ideal circumstances. Sometimes people are just "lucky"... and sometimes they aren't as lucky as they think, which leads to...

  3. Foodborne illnesses are incredibly common and tend to be underreported. For one thing, the "24-hour stomach flu" that people often complain about "going around," is much more frequently due to food poisoning or food-borne illness than to other causes (and certainly not influenza, which is a primarily respiratory ailment). People have a lot of "stomach bugs" and "bad nights" due to food poisoning, which often requires a day or two (or sometimes several days) to incubate after the food has been consumed. Foodborne illnesses may rarely be life-threatening, but they are incredibly common -- much more so than people think. Maybe you've always been defrosting chicken on the counter and "nothing bad happened," except for the time that the family came down with a "stomach bug" a few days after and you didn't make the connection.

However, with that last point stated, it's also true that a lot of people at some point in their lives has a truly horrific bout of illness that they attribute to food poisoning. I myself had one in the past year, and from various characteristics of what happened, I'm pretty sure it was food poisoning. I almost went to the hospital, but I gave it 24 hours, and it eventually passed. Yet I would give almost anything never to experience a night like that again. And I'm incredibly cautious with food myself. (The food I'm blaming was not prepared by me, but I later found out some details about its preparation.)

So, I'd say an experience like that would be enough to drive me to ask a question on this site, just to "make sure" about something. Some people read something and realize point (1) -- that the vast majority of people have terrible intuitions about food safety, so they want to check about something related to something they've heard.

And yes, some questions are likely due to paranoia due to various food safety scares on the news.

I'll just end by saying that I'm glad people ask such questions here. Food safety is NOT intuitive. In many cases, it defies "common sense" principles or at least standard kitchen "lore" that's passed down. I still remember the first surprising food safety myth I encountered: about people getting sick from leftover Chinese food. Most people assume it's the meat or the sauce, but it's much, much more likely you're getting sick from the rice (which tends to harbor bacteria that can take on spore form during cooking and then proliferates when left at room temperature to cool, producing toxins that are hard to get rid of even on reheating).

Who gets sick from rice? A lot of people, it turns out. Ever since, I've been fascinated by food safety, and I hope to educate people about it.

Historically, foodborne illness was one of the largest killers of children, old people, and anyone with compromised immune systems. We've made a lot of progress due to better sanitation and better food-handling practices, but when the question here acts like lack of refrigeration is just a minor concern -- it's not. Making food truly safe without refrigeration is very complicated, and lots of people in the past (and still in many cultures today) spend a lot of days feeling ill because of problems caused by food. Is it life-threatening? Not in most cases. In most cases, it's just some minor digestive discomfort that goes away in a few hours. But it could be avoided.

I agree with the last sentence of the question: compared to various risks people take on an everyday basis, minor foodborne illness is probably not something people should fret about. On the other hand, the vast majority of it is easily preventable with simple guidelines, which is why we have some standard answers that get used for a large number of food safety questions that appear on this site.

Still, I'd rather that those people ask questions here, instead of spending a night like I had a few months ago... if only the person who prepared my food had understood the need for refrigeration in part of the food prep...

  • Nice answer I must tell you that I fully agree to the firstt part. I am always telling people no to behave too easy with leftover food as for their gastrointestinal discomforts might well be a reheaten soup... still I would ask things such as "how long can I store food X in my fridge" rather than " my gf left a bowl on the table at 4 pm. Can I have it for dinner? ".Once again, I found many of them indeed paranoia, but perhaps I have been just lucky all the time to date. I do take it normal to go the toilet "differently " time to time, that I must admit :) plus one for the clarity. – Alchimista Jun 3 at 9:52

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