A Quick Science Lesson
Let’s stop and think about what food is for a moment.
Food is organic material, coming from either plants, animals, or fungus.
Meat comes from a slaughtered animal that has been dissected piece by piece and ground up into hamburger meat or dipped in batter to later be fried. Vegetables grow right up out of manure from the ground. Mushrooms are, in fact, a fungus.
Food is inherently unsanitary. Food comes from once-living things that have been harvested, taken apart and repackaged in hopes of arriving at their final destination before decomposition sets in.
In short, food is kind of gross when you think about it, and it can get even grosser if you don’t know how to properly prepare, store and cook it.
Of course, the point we’re trying to make here isn’t just that food starts out icky, but rather, that health concerns should be of the highest priority when working in the food industry.
The fact is that food is not merely prone to come in contact with germs and parasites and the like, but that food is inherently tainted. Food inherently carries bacteria and other pathogens. Keeping food safe for your customers or dinner guests is not a matter of preventing the food from coming into contact with germs, but of keeping those germs to a minimum, killing bacteria through freezing and cooking processes, and in keeping the food as safe and healthy as possible.
The bottom line is that, every time you eat anything, you are ingesting potentially harmful bacteria and all sorts of other nasties, but, fortunately, the human immune system is quite capable of dealing with E. coli or salmonella… in small doses, at least.
With this in mind, we give you…
A Brief Lesson in Pathogens
We’ll begin with a brief definition of a pathogen-
A pathogen, or a germ, is identified as being a biological agent capable of causing disease or illness to its host.
The body itself is capable of defending against common pathogens by way of the human immune system, as well as through helpful bacteria which occur in the human body’s normal flora However, should this defense system, either the human immune system or helpful bacteria be damaged in any way, such as through chemotherapy, HIV, or antibiotics (often taken to kill existing pathogens), then pathogenic bacteria or viruses can easily infect, proliferate and, in some cases, become terminal.
The fact is that every pathogen is capable of killing its host. Without a defense system in place, there is nothing to keep bacteria from simply eating and eating away at the host without cease.
A number of pathogens, such as Yersinia pestis, believed to have been the cause of the Black Plague, and the Malaria protozoa, have been responsible for casualties on a massive scale.
Types of Pathogen
Pathogens can be either viral, bacterial, fungal or prionic.
Viral pathogens generally fall into the families of:
Notable viral pathogens include smallpox, influenza, measles, chickenpox, Ebola, the mumps and rubella.
Interestingly, the vast majority of bacterial pathogens are either harmless or, in fact, beneficial, but there are those that can lead to infectious disease. The most common bacterial disease is T.B., or tuberculosis, which is caused by Microbacterium tuberculosis, a bacteria which affects about two million people, with the majority being in sub-Saharan Africa.
The most common strains of food borne bacterial pathogen include shigella, campy lobacter and salmonella. Pathogenic bacteria can cause infections including tetanus, typhoid fever, diphtheria, syphilis and even leprosy (though this is hardly common in the 21st Century). Bacterial infections are generally dealt with by way of antibiotics.
Fungal pathogens are capable of causing disease in humans, animals and even plants. This type of pathogen typically infects immuno-compromised people or vulnerable individuals with weakened immune systems. The majority of antibiotics cannot be used to treat fungal infections as fungi and their hosts both have eukaryotic cells.
A prion is a pathogen that does not contain nucleic acids. Associated conditions include mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
Pathogens can be transmitted in several ways. Here we’ll deal with airborne, blood borne and food borne pathogens.
Blood borne pathogens are not necessarily transmitted strictly through contact with blood, but can also be transmitted through other bodily fluids such as saliva, mucus and tears.
Airborne pathogens are those which are transmitted through the air. This can include those transmitted through sneezing, coughing, or simply those drifting in the air.
Not to alarm you, but the air you breath is literally packed with all sorts of bacteria and other substances, including, but not limited to, dead skin flakes and microscopic bits of fecal matter. There is simply no getting away from airborne pathogens. While more extreme measures of controlling airborne pathogens may be put in place in places such as hospitals and treatment centers, the primary method for dealing with airborne pathogens is simply in ensuring that they do not cause infection.
The truth is that food will come into contact with pathogens, and so, proper cooking and clean hands are a requisite in keeping these pathogens from spreading and causing infection or disease.
Food borne pathogens are those which are, of course, transmitted through food.
The chief offender with regards to salmonella would be, of course, poultry. Typically, poultry contracts salmonella due to unhygienic thawing methods. It is of course common to use ice water to thaw chicken, but using, say, warm water, instead, can easily attract bacteria and cause it to multiply. This is because the melt water contains condensation from the chicken, which proves to be a literal Petri dish for the minuscule amount of the bacteria already in the water.
This same principle applies to all other foods, as well. Unclean food, food not prepared to the proper temperatures, food left out for too long are all breeding grounds for the miniscule amounts of salmonella in the water and air to thrive and multiply.
- Coli, or Escherichia Coli, is a gram negative bacterium most commonly found in the lower intestine of warm blooded animals. The majority of E. Coli strains are, perhaps surprisingly, harmless. Several other strains, however, can be responsible for serious food poisoning in humans.
The harmless strains of E. Coli are actually a part of the normal flora of the human gut and can actually benefit the host by producing vitamin K, as well as preventing the establishment of pathogenic bacteria within the intestine.
- Coli can typically only survive outside of the body for brief periods of time, however, food that has not been prepared properly makes for a fertile breeding ground for the bacteria, and should infection occur, serious and life threatening complications can possibly take place.
The Severity of the Situation
As mentioned above, pathogens are everywhere. They’re in every meal you eat, they thrive on your hands and they’re in the air you’re breathing right now. It’s simply a fact of life that germs are everywhere, even on Mars (if those fossils recovered in the mid-nineties are to be believed).
The importance of serving safe and hygienic food, then, is quite a priority. We can never ensure that the food that we serve is one hundred percent free of pathogens, but we can, fortunately, make sure that those pathogens are kept to safe enough levels that the average individuals immune system will be able to efficiently deal with any germs that come in contact with the body.
Here we will emphasize the number one point of this entire post
Wash your Hands
We’ll warn you here and now that you should expect us to “get on our high horse” about this one a few more times before this text is finished. The fact is that keeping your hands clean is the absolute number one best method for preventing the spread of pathogens in a kitchen environment.
Keep your hands clean, apply latex gloves any time you need to come in direct contact with food, and your battle with food borne pathogens is already half-won.