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What is Food Safety?

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on Jan 8, 2022.

Food Safety: From Farm to Plate

Food safety -- it's not a hot topic of conversation but it can be an important health issue.

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) often highlights an area of global public health concern -- Food Safety.
  • In the states, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) control food safey at the federal level.

Categories of unsafe food include those with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances. These products can cause a host of diseases -- from life-threatening diarrhea to deadly cancers.

Examples of unsafe food items include undercooked meats, improperly cleaned fruits and vegetables that may have animal waste on the outside peel, and shellfish -- clams, oysters, and mussels -- containing marine biotoxins.

Foodborne Illness is Common

You probably don't think about food safety and food-borne illness very much -- we usually call it food poisoning -- but you should.

  • In fact, each year, roughly 1 in 6 Americans, or 48 million people, get sick by consuming contaminated foods or beverages, and more than 3,000 die, according to the CDC.
  • Economic cost due to foodborne illness in the U.S. is estmated to be $15.6 billion each year.
  • More than 250 different infectious foodborne diseases are known, caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
  • Along the food production chain -- from producer to consumer -- regulations must be observed and safe food handling practices must occur to keep food supplies safe.

What are 5 food safety rules?

The World Health Organization (WHO) Five Keys to Safer Food are as follows:

  • Keep clean: wash your hands and keep surfaces clean for food preparation.
  • Separate raw and cooked food and use different utensils for each.
  • Cook your food thoroughly, especially meat, seafood, poultry and eggs.
  • Keep food at safe temperatures; don't leave cooked food out for more than two hours.
  • Use clean and safe water and safe raw foods, such as fruits and vegetables; don't eat or drink food after the expiration date.

Bacteria Are Foodies, Too

When you live in a country where the food is almost always safe, you rarely think about food safety statistics. But these numbers from the World Health Organization (WHO) are eye-opening.

  • Over 200 diseases can be spread through unsafe food worldwide.
  • Contaminated food and water are responsible for over 1.5 million childhood deaths each year, usually due to diarrheal diseases. Other common symptoms of foodborne illness include stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Children under 5 years of age carry 40% of the foodborne disease burden, with 125,000 deaths every year.
  • If food is contaminated with heavy metals like cadmium, mercury or lead, regular consumption can lead to cancer, kidney, or brain damage. Contamination of food by heavy metal occurs mainly through pollution of air, water and soil.
  • Foodborne diseases hinder social and economic development by straining health care systems and national economies, local tourism and trade.

Say Hello to Drug-Resistant Food-Poisoning

We know that bacteria like those that cause skin infections or sore throats are developing antibiotic-resistance. But food-borne bacteria? In fact, yes, many bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics via overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Take Shigella, a highly contagious bacteria that has been hitching rides from travelers outside the U.S. to set down roots in the states. Shigella infects the intestines and leads to cramps, rectal pain, bloody or mucus-tinged diarrhea and vomiting.

People with shigellosis shed the bacteria in their feces, then it spreads from an infected person to water, food, or directly to another person via hand-to-mouth contamination.

  • The CDC reports that roughly 500,000 people per year get diarrheal disease due to Shigella. Most people will recover from shigellosis without antibiotic treatment in 5 to 7 days, but may need to use oral rehydration solutions.
  • Oral antibiotics, including ciprofloxacin (Cipro) for adults have been the standard treatment for severe cases of Shigellosis, but experts state antibiotic injections may be needed if rates of resistance continue. Azithromycin is the common treatment for children. Resistance for both of these drugs is on the rise.
  • There are an estimated 27,000 antibiotic resistant Shigella infections in the US each year.

Learn More: Antibiotic Resistance: A Global Threat

Those At Greatest Risk

For those of us that are fortunate enough to have adequate housing, clean water and ample nutrition, food safety is not usually a big concern.

But those at greatest risk are those who are lacking in basic resources:

  • the homeless
  • those with mental health disorders
  • those in extreme poverty.

These groups may be more susceptible to foodborne illnesses because they lack these basic resources.

For infants, pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly who are in these groups, the consequences of foodborne disease are even more severe and can lead to further disability or even death.

How Does Food Get Contaminated?

Good nutrition is linked with safe food. Unless you are self-sustaining with your own organic farm (and let's face it, most of us aren't) there are many opportunities for your food to become contaminated.

From on-farm production, to fertilization, to harvesting or slaughter, standards must be met to maintain the safety of our food through the production and shipping line.

In places where secure food is scarce, the World Health Organization (WHO) works to ensure that healthy and wholesome food for everyone is available to improve food and nutrition security.

Chemicals in the Food Supply

Chemicals in the food supply are a major concern for health.

The World Health Organization has developed national and international food safety standards to prevent exposure to unsafe levels of chemicals, to ensure fair trade practices, and to protect the health of consumers.

Chemicals can be introduced into our food either intentionally (as a food additive or preservative), or accidentally as a toxin from the environment in air, water or soil.

Freezing Isn't Just for Winter

Need more information on how to safely freeze food to prevent spoilage? The website offers these tips:

  • Freezing food won't destroy bacteria. It just preserves food longer.
  • Keep your freezer at 0 degrees F or colder (-18° C). Keep the refrigerator temperature at or below 40° F (4° C). Check these temperatures periodically. Appliance thermometers are the best way to monitor these temperatures and are affordable at your local home improvement stores.
  • Thaw foods in the fridge, not on the counter for hours.
  • Leftovers should be frozen within two hours to prevent bacterial growth.

Food Safety is a Group Effort

You might think the farmer or the rancher are the only people that really have control over food safety. However, there are many steps involved in keeping food healthy "from farm to table".

The U.S. government (such as the FDA, USDA and EPA), the food production industry, farmers and ranchers, academia and consumers all have a part to play.

Toxicologists, microbiologists, parasitologists, nutritionists, and medical professionals are experts on food safety, but food safety requires the concerted efforts of many groups to help to keep our nation nutritionally sound.

To see the most recent FDA recalls on food products, visit: FDA - Recalls, Market Withdrawals, & Safety Alerts

Finished: What is Food Safety?

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  • Update – CDC Recommendations for Managing and Reporting Shigella Infections with Possible Reduced Susceptibility to Ciprofloxacin. Health Alert Network (HAN) Accessed 1/8/2022
  • Shigella – Shigellosis. Diagnosis and Treatment. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Accessed 1/8/2022
  • World Health Organization (WHO). Five Keys To Safer Food Manual.
  • CDC and Food Safety. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Accessed 1/8/2022
  • Food Facts for Consumers. US Food and Drug Administraiton (FDA). Accessed 1/8/2022
  • Antibiotic Resistance and Shigella Infections. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Accessed 1/8/2022 at

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.