When I started my first year of college, I got a job at the university food court. I was hired to be a cashier, and I hardly handled any food at all. So, I was surprised when I learned that I was required to take a class and a test in order to receive a food handler card. The class was held in a downtown government building and was about an hour long, and in those sixty minutes, I learned more than an enough to convince me of the importance of food safety. Even as a cashier, there was a possibility that I might touch food, and I needed to know how to make sure the customers’ food did not become contaminated as a result of my negligence.
Every year, thousands of people get food poisoning from eating contaminated food caused by improper sanitation or preparation. In fact, more than 250 known diseases can be transmitted through food, and all it takes is the wrong temperature, a small cough, or some unwashed hands to start the spreading of these diseases. And beyond the hundreds of known diseases that can be spread through food, the Center for Disease Control also estimates of that the unknown illness and hospitalizations (for which the cause cannot be directly identified), 81% are caused by food poisoning, due in part to improper food handling.
Food poisoning can be caused by infectious agents or by toxic agents. Infectious agents include viruses, bacteria, and parasites.
These infections can appear in your food if the people handling it are sick and don’t wash their hands, if they store the food in unclean areas, or if a contaminated substance (such as money, which is covered in bacteria, or raw meat) comes in contact with your food.
Toxic agents can include poisonous mushrooms, improperly prepared meats, or pesticides on fruits and vegetables. Although these agents are sometimes much harder for food handlers to control, cooks and restaurant owners should be aware of these dangers and take measures to ensure that their food suppliers provide their establishments with quality, clean food.
Needless to say, food poisoning is an unpleasant experience. The symptoms usually include vomiting, nausea, and abdominal cramping, and the illness usually lasts about one to two days.
But as I learned years ago, food handlers can have a large effect on the quality of customer’s food that can help prevent food poisoning. Luckily, most states and local governments require that workers in the food industry acquire a food handler card so that everyone is aware of the danger of spreading disease and infection through food and knows how to prevent such illnesses.
In food handler classes, people will typically learn the basics of food safety, including hand washing. One topic that is particularly enforced is the dangers of cross-contamination. Cross-contamination is perhaps the number one cause of disease and bacteria in food. For instance, raw meat is full of bacteria that are killed when cooked, but if that raw meat is prepared next to fresh vegetables or fruits and some of its bacteria is accidently transferred to the fresh foods, then the food has just become contaminated.
Cross-contamination can also occur when a person uses the same cooking utensil or cutting board for both raw meats and other foods. Another potential danger of cross-contamination occurs in the refrigerator. If raw meats are stored above fresh foods, then the juice from the meat could drip onto the food being stored below and transfer harmful bacteria to that food.
Food handlers are also trained how to properly use cleaning products without transferring harmful chemicals to food, how to keep and take proper temperatures of food so that bacteria are effectively killed, and how to prevent illnesses among the staff from spreading to other people.
Because food safety is so important, customers should be sure that the restaurants they frequently visit require their workers to have food handler cards or permits. If the people cooking and serving your food are aware of the proper procedures in maintaining food safety, you can rest easy that you are more likely to receive clean, uncontaminated food when you go out to eat.
However, although many institutions require their workers to obtain food hander cards, they may not always enforce adherence to the principles they’ve learned. Which is why it’s always a good idea to see when the restaurant’s last health inspection was. If a restaurant has frequent health inspections and maintains high scores, it is very likely that the workers at the restaurant maintain high standards in preparing and serving your food.
And if you’re thinking about working in the food industry, or if you’re a manager and are thinking about requiring your employees to obtain food handlers permits, almost every state hosts short classes and exams that can help train you or your employees in proper food safety procedures. And because these classes are offered almost everywhere, it shouldn’t be difficult to obtain a Texas food handler card, a Minnesota permit, or a card anywhere in between.
And many food handler classes are now being offered online, which makes obtaining certification that much easier. In these cases, usually a person has to study a manual, take a test, and then they are mailed their food handler card. And food handler cards usually lasts for about three years, at which time you’ll have to retake the exam to receive a new one.
Whether you’re a worker in the food industry or a patron of restaurants, food safety is important. By ensuring that food is handled properly, people can help prevent a variety of illnesses and diseases, including food poisoning.