Is it safe to eat wherever it’s convenient?

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One recent problematic innovation has been the sale of food in many environments that are not suitable for storing food at all. A good example is the desire of owners of kiosks and service stations to sell food (mostly fast food) in the midst of vast array of different chemicals. It is ridiculous to be worried about pesticide residues in food, if you are happy to eat a burger in the forecourt of a service station surrounded by automobile chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic.[1]


Most of the known food contamination incidents have occurred when foodstuffs were handled together with totally incompatible chemicals. In some food contamination accidents, lethal insecticides such as parathion or endrin have ended up in the food because of some silly mistake or because flour was contaminated in the storage room. Contamination of the storage room may have occurred weeks before the sacks of flour were brought into the room. Sometimes there was a clear mistake. Hundreds of kilograms of flame retardants ended up to cattle feed in Michigan in 1973, because they were mistaken for flour.

In Belgium in 1999, transformer oil was poured into a tank of recycled fats and oils collected from restaurants and intended for recycling into animal feed. This caused a PCB and dioxin crisis not only for Belgium but for the entire European Union, which dragged on for years, and in fact the repercussions are still being felt ten years later.[2] In most cases what had happened was simply not thought to be possible. Nonetheless when different activities are not kept separated, even an apparently unlikely accident is all too likely to occur.

General hygiene and training

Food safety can only be maintained if food is handled separately from incompatible materials, separate storage rooms are used, and there are trained and separate personnel. If the same person has to handle food and chemicals, then we have two different risks, the first being basically a hygienic risk. Chemicals may be carried via unwashed hands or clothes and pass into the food. Another risk is a possibility of mixing up food oils and lubricating mineral oils for instance. In addition, personnel training should be quite different for these two very different occupations.

Another recent development is the variety of small kiosks selling food. These may include warm food, often sausages or hamburgers. Maintaining a good hygienic level is much more demanding under these conditions than in proper permanent facilities. The personnel working in these establishments are also often poorly paid, temporary workers. Hygiene training needs to be emphasised to anyone dealing with food, and training and follow-up that the knowledge has been understood are very difficult in transient, part-time, poorly educated workers. The kiosk owner entrepreneurs should take responsibility for this important, though apparently mundane, task.

The greatest difference in health between developed and developing countries can be attributed to better control and training in hygiene which translates into huge differences in the risks posed by both microbes and chemicals. This is an area that should not tolerate any compromises in any society.

Notes and references

One level up: Is man defiled by what goes to his mouth?

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