Food is a highly regulated commodity. Standards exist for food cultivation, harvesting, processing, packaging and transportation. Just to call out a few, Annex I of EU law No. 852/2004 on the hygiene of foodstuff recommends that efforts be made to ensure the cleanliness of animals to be slaughtered as a means of mitigating cross-contamination risks1. During food preparation at home or in commercial facilities, standards exist for cooking temperatures (e.g. 71° Celsius (C); 160 Fahrenheit (F) for ground meats, 74°C; 165 F for ground or whole poultry). Likewise, meat and poultry may not be held between 40° F - 140° F (4.4° C - 60° C) for more than two hours before consumption2. Let’s highlight a few others.
International Food Codes
The Codex Alimentarius or "Food Code" of the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization formulates international standards, codes of practice and guidelines for diverse foods. While these are voluntary standards, they are informed by science and may be ratified as national and regional food safety standards. For example, for preserved tomatoes, the codex standard CXS 13-1981 only recommends the use of seasonings without tomato flavoring in a bit to avoid "adulterating" the natural tomato flavor3. Additionally, the pH (a measure of alkalinity or acidity) of preserved tomatoes may not exceed 4.53. Beyond this pH, preserved tomatoes may support the growth of bacteria and moulds. Below this pH (e.g. pH ≤1.0), preserved tomatoes may be too acidic and unsafe for human consumption. To further ensure the safety of preserved tomatoes for human consumption, CXS 13-1981 considers fruits with surface lesions exceeding 3.5 cm2 aggregate area per Kg of tomatoes as defective food3. You may wonder why? This is an important food safety standard because surface lesions may facilitate the growth of disease-causing microorganisms.
Food Standards Cover the Food Environment
In addition to rigorous food standards, the same are in place for environments where food is handled or processed. Generally described as hygiene standards, these include (i) an approved list of chemistries that may be used in food environments; (ii) permissible chemical use limits for food contact and nonfood contact surfaces; (iii) acceptable contact times between an antimicrobial agent and a surface being sanitized or disinfected, and; (iv) demonstrable antimicrobial efficacy that meets regulatory standards. Let’s put it all together. In the United States for example, the US Environmental Protection Agency maintains a list of active and inert ingredients approved for use on food contact surfaces. For an active ingredient such as chlorine (bleach), when it is used to formulate a no-rinse food contact surface sanitizer, the amount of available chlorine may not exceed 200 parts per million (ppm)4. Additionally, the contact time for a food contact surface sanitizer may not exceed one minute. Collectively, applicable guidelines ensure that food contact surface sanitizers result in a "rapid" kill of foodborne pathogens. Among other benefits, chemical hygiene standards help to minimize food safety risks presented by foodborne pathogens and chemical residues.
Let’s wrap it up. While food safety standards exist from farm to fork, they typically go beyond food to include the environment where food is being processed or handled.
1. European Union. Regulation (EC) No 852/2004 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004 on the hygiene of foodstuffs. EU. 2021. Accessed May 10, 2023
2. U.S. Department of Agriculture-Food Safety and Inspection Service. How Temperatures Affect Food. USDA-FSIS, 2020. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/how-temperatures-affect-food. Accessed May 10, 2023
3. Codex Alimentarius. Standard for preserved tomatoes -CXS 13-1981. FAO/WHO, 2017.
4. Gaulin C, Le ML, Shum M, Fong D. Disinfectants and sanitizers for use on food contact surfaces. National collaborating center for environmental health. 2011.