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Public Health - Seattle & King County

Myths and misunderstandings about food safety

MYTH: "When I make my mom's famous potato salad, I boil the potatoes the day before and leave them on the counter to cool overnight. But since mayonnaise will go bad, I leave it in the fridge until it's time to mix the salad ingredients together."

Wrong. Cooked starch foods like potatoes, rice, beans or pasta can grow germs if not kept cold in the fridge or hot over 140º F. So put the potatoes in the fridge with no cover to cool quickly. Cool all hot foods this way. Then use cold ingredients to make the potato salad. Note that commercially-made mayonnaise is required by the government to have vinegar or lemon juice as one ingredient, and these slow germs from growing due to its high acidity.

You should still keep your mayo in the fridge though, so it doesn't clarify into clear "yellow jello" which is not too appetizing.

MYTH: "To protect my family while doing food preparation after having had diarrhea or vomiting, all I need to do is wash my hands."

Yes but to a limited degree in these cases. Alternative barriers like spoons, tongs or gloves are necessary since you don't wash off all the germs from your hands. Better yet, if possible, ask another family member to do the cooking when you are ill. Learn more from our Stop Germs, Stay Healthy! website and order free handwashing posters.

MYTH: "I don't need to wash my hands since I use a hand sanitizing gel."

Think again. Although hand sanitizers can effectively kill some germs on your hands, they do little to reduce the surface tension between your skin and dirt/grease/germs. The sanitizer only has an effect on the outer layer of film on your hands. Some bad germs are still present. When washing hands, first wet your hands with warm water, lather with soap for at least 20 seconds, rinse with warm water, then dry with a clean towel.

MYTH: "I don't need to wash my produce at home because the grocery store mists it during display."

Wrong. This type of light rinsing of produce will not remove germs from the soil where produce is grown or from contact by store and field workers. Did they wash their hands after using the toilet then touched your food?

MYTH: "The oven was set at 375º so the chicken must be cooked!"

Nope - It's how much heat is in the middle of the meat that matters! Buy a metal stem thermometer to take internal temperatures of foods and make sure to cook meats to the following minimum internal temperatures:

Bacteria, or other germs, need time, food and moisture (or wetness) to grow; but they won't grow when the temperature of the food is colder than 41º F or hotter than 135º F. The temperatures in between 41º and 135º are in the "Danger Zone." Keep potentially hazardous foods out of the "Danger Zone!" For example, when food is left in the "Danger Zone", bacteria can grow fast, and make poisons that can make your customers and family very sick.

Learn more about safe food temperatures.

MYTH: "This place is not spotless, therefore, the food must not be safe to eat."

Rather than cleanliness, food safety practices should be evaluated to determine whether food is safe. Hot foods must be hot, cold foods must be cold. Food workers must wash their hands and make sure utensils are cleaned between raw and ready-to-eat food preparation.

MYTH: "You can tell if food will make you sick because it will smell bad, taste bad, have mold on it, or be slimy."

No. Bad smell, bad taste and slime are signs that the food has lost its quality, but not that it has the germs to cause foodborne illness. The germs and toxins that cause foodborne illness do not change the smell or taste of the food. You cannot see if the food is contaminated. Only proper preparation, cooking and storage lowers the risk of foodborne illness.

MYTH: "The raw hamburger I bought at the store was red on the outside, but gray on the inside. The retailer is hiding old meat inside fresh ground beef. "

Red meat contains a pigment called oxymyoglobin. When meat is exposed to air this natural pigment combines with oxygen to produce the red color referred to as "bloom." The inside portion of the meat, while just as wholesome, may be darker due to the lack of oxygen. This is not an attempt to camouflage older ground beef.

MYTH: "The "sell-by date" has passed, so food is not safe and should be pulled from the sales case."

Pull dates are established by the Washington State Department of Agriculture for all perishable packaged goods that have a shelf life of thirty days or less because they have a high risk of spoilage. It is legal though to sell products that have exceeded their "pull" date. If the product is being sold past the "pull" date, the retailer is required to verify that the product continues to appear wholesome and is without danger to health. these products need to be clearly identified as having passed the pull date.