How Can a Food Handler Identify Pathogens

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Following safe food handler’s practices can ensure safe and pathogen-free food. But the problem is how can a food handler identify pathogens and make food pathogen-free?.

To lead a healthy lifestyle, it is very important to have adequate knowledge of food safety. You should be able to identify and eliminate pathogens that cause food-borne illness.

Now you must be wondering, how can a food handler identify pathogens in a food? Obviously, yes. There are some important points to be noted that will help in the identification of bacterial growth in food by texture, color, and by looking at the condition of your food.

However, dangerous bacteria like E. coli causes difficulty in detection on your food. Keeping this in view, it is also very important to learn how to prevent contamination along with the identification of pathogens.

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Foodborne illness is a major concern for both food handlers and food consumers. Food handlers have a responsibility in serving safe and pathogen-free foods to their customers. An effort in preventing food contamination is never a hard task.

Keep reading this article till the end, we will discuss this later.

What are foodborne pathogens?

Pathogens are parasites, bacteria, and viruses that cause foodborne illness to the consumer. Every year, millions of people suffer from foodborne diseases, some severe cases leading to death.

According to the Federal government, they estimated about 48 million foodborne illness cases every year resulting in 128000 hospitalizations and 3000 deaths annually (1).

The common pathogens are as follows;

Salmonella

Salmonella is a group of bacteria that causes salmonellosis infection like diarrhea. It lives in the intestinal tract of humans or other animals causing a weakened immune system and severe infection to pregnant women, children, and older adults.

Consumption of contaminated raw foods like fruits and vegetables, undercooked eggs, meats, and poultry products are the common sources of salmonella. To prevent this bacterial infection, you should wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly, boil the foods at a safe temperature, and avoid cross-contamination.

Escherichia coli

E. coli is composed of a large group of bacteria. It is considered that most of the strains of E. coli are harmless but some strain like E. coli 0157:H7 (STEC) causes food poisoning since its effects are extremely severe.

Eating raw foods like undercooked meats or drinking unpasteurized milk are the common sources of E. coli. To prevent food poisoning outbreaks, you should wash your hands regularly, cook meat and poultry products until you reach a safe cooking temperature, and avoid drinking non-pasteurized dairy products.

Clostridium perfringens

Clostridium perfringens is very common and is present in our environment. In ideal atmospheric conditions, Clostridium perfringens gets multiplied very quickly.

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When you eat foods contaminated with this bacteria, you fall sick from diseases like abdominal cramps and diarrhea. While keeping this in the back of your mind, it is very important to wash fruits, vegetables, meat items, and poultry products properly. You should also discard the food that remained in the danger zone for more than 4 hours.

Listeria monocytogenes

Listeria monocytogenes are bacteria that cause listeriosis infection. The most surprising fact is that this bacteria can grow at a refrigerator temperature too. Consumption of listeria contaminated food can weaken your immune system.

It is commonly found in refrigerated and ready-to-eat foods like raw dairy products, hot dogs, sprouts, and unpasteurized milk.

To prevent yourself from listeria infection, it is advisable to wash and cook foods to a safe cooking temperature. Maintenance of a clean kitchen area, refrigerator, and utensils can also play a vital role in preventing contamination from these bacteria.

Campylobacter

As a cause of diarrhea, campylobacter bacteria are found in raw fruits and vegetables, undercooked meat products, and cross-contamination from other products.

Freezing of meat products helps in reducing the campylobacter bacteria but it will not kill these bacteria completely. Therefore, heating and cooking to a safe temperature are essential.

Toxoplasma gondii

Toxoplasmosis is caused by Toxoplasma gondii parasites that result in severe health problems and pose a higher risk for food poisoning. The vulnerable groups may include pregnant women, infants, older adults, and people with the weak immune system.

It causes the disease like reduced vision, common flu, swollen lymph glands, or muscle aches that can last for more than a month. You may get contact with these parasites from eating undercooked and contaminated meat products.

Can pathogens in food be detected?

It is obvious that we can detect pathogens in food.

Through some of the red flags, it will be much easier for food handlers to identify pathogens like texture, color, and the condition of your food.

However, it is not possible to detect bacteria like E. coli which is most dangerous contaminant.

Therefore, it is very important to learn how to prevent contamination and avoid harmful pathogens from your food.

How can a food handler identify pathogens?

Researchers have developed various scientific methods for the identification of pathogens based on culture, immunological, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), biosensors, and immunoassays (2).

These methods are complex and not practical for a food handler to identify pathogens instantly. So, how can a food handler identify pathogens? Are there simple ways for identification?

Even though the methods are complex and require laboratory analysis, there are some simple ways where food handlers can say whether the food is contaminated or not by following general food safety rules.

The following are some ways to ease how can a food handler identify pathogens.

  • Contaminated food will have a slimy film
  • The presence of molds can predict the contamination
  • Contaminated meat items will have discoloration of the flesh
  • There will be pungent odors or a foul smell
  • Visualization of unusual texture and shape can tell you whether the food is contaminated or not

These are some simple tips and ways to find out whether the food is contaminated or not.

Common food sources of pathogens

The food we eat every day contains bacteria. However, identification of pathogens, elimination, and following proper food safety standards can reduce the risk. Raw foods like meat are a perfect breeding ground for pathogens and germs.

Raw fruits and vegetables are also vulnerable to pathogen infestation but they can be prevented from contamination through proper washing and storage.

The common food sources of pathogens may include;

  • Raw meat
  • Fishes and shellfish
  • Seafood
  • Unpasteurized milk
  • Raw fruit, vegetables
  • Sprouts, and leafy greens
  • Rice and raw flours

Preventative measures for pathogen contamination

In this article, we will discuss four preventive measures for pathogen contamination. Following these preventive measures can avoid arising questions like how can a food handler identify pathogens.

Step 1. Cleaning

  • Follow 7-steps of hand-washing, wash your hands with warm water with soap for at least 20 seconds.
  • Maintain your kitchen cleanliness.
  • Wash your dishes and dish clothes regularly
  • Wash and clean your utensils before and after use
  • Wash raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly
  • Keep refrigerator clean

Step 2. Avoid cross-contamination

  • Store meat items, poultry products, and vegetables separately
  • Use plastic containers to hold them separately
  • Use different knives for cutting different meat products
  • Put them separately into the refrigerator

Step 3. Cook properly

  • Cook the food at a safe temperature, use a thermometer to check the temperature
  • Avoid eating raw meats, seafood, and vegetables.
  • Discard the food left in the danger zone (3) for more than 4 hours (5°C-60°C)
  • Store cooked food in the refrigerator using sealed containers

Step 4. Chill

  • Food items like raw meats, fruits, and vegetables should be refrigerated immediately after cutting
  • Regarding arrangements inside the fridge, store meat items on the lower shelves, fruits, and vegetables on the upper shelves to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Maintain the refrigerator temperature within 5°C
  • Most importantly, check the expiry dates of food items regularly

Symptoms that should be reported

Food handlers should report if any of them suffer from food borne illness or injury.

If not report and continue to go for work, there is high chance of contamination to other people.

What should food handlers do if you are suffering from foodborne illness?

A symptoms that a food handler should pay a close attention are;

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea

If the food handler is suffering from the above-mentioned symptoms, you should immediately stop working and report to their superiors.

Food handlers should undergo medical test.

They can return to their normal work after complete recovery from the illness.

Q1. When must a food handler wash their hands?

Proper handwashing can prevent food from contamination. According to the food safety standards, food handlers should wash their hand;
– before handling food
– between handling ready-to-eat food and raw foods
– after coughing, smoking, sneezing, eating, and drinking
– after using the toilet
– after handling waste

Q2. What is danger zone in food safety?

According to the food safety standards, a temperature between 5°C and 60°C is called a danger zone. It is well understood that a warmer temperature can be a breeding ground for bacteria and they can multiply easily.

Q3. What kind of gloves should food handler wear?

Food handlers should wear food-graded plastic gloves.

Conclusion

Foodborne illness is a major concern but it is preventable through identification, elimination, and food safety measures.

Identification of pathogens is complex and requires lab analysis but food handlers can identify pathogens and tell you whether the served food is contaminated or not through simple ways.

I hope I have cleared your doubts or are you still struct on the question of how can a food handler identify pathogens. If so, you can comment on us below and let us have a good conversation.

References

1) Food Safety Government

2) National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. (NCBI, 2016)

3) Food Handlers Training Manual, 2008, BAFRA, MoAF, Thimphu