Food Contamination: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson, we will learn about food contamination. We'll define food contamination, including how that definition may be changing and also look as examples of food contamination.

What Is Food Contamination?

Have you ever been eating and had the unfortunate experience of finding a hair in your food? Or perhaps you have found some bugs in your lettuce? These are both examples of food contamination, but they are only one type of food contamination: physical contamination. There can also be chemical and biological contamination.

Some biological contaminants can be seen, such as mold on bread, but most of the time these types of contaminants can not be seen by the consumer
Biological contamination

Food contamination is anything in food that reduces the safety or quality and is not supposed to be there. Food may be contaminated intentionally or accidentally. As a consumer, we never want to see our food to be contaminated but often the contamination we can see doesn't actually harm us, it is more often the unseen contamination that is most harmful.

Food Recalls

We all hear the extreme stories of people who find a finger in their hamburger or the large outbreaks of food borne illnesses, such as listeria from lettuce. These are both examples of food contamination. When these occur in the United States, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) issues a food recall. A food recall is when food is returned to the producers due to safety or legal concerns.

Some of these food recalls may not be anything actually wrong with the product, but often it is something wrong with the labeling. Allergens are considered a food contamination if it is not properly stated on the label that the food has specific allergens present (or have the possibility of being present if produced in a facility with allergens), like nuts. If something is not stated on the label then it is considered a food contaminant. The label is the legally binding document that tells us what is supposed to be in that product. If anything else is in the product that isn't on the label, then it is considered a food contaminant.

Some food contaminants, such as hair in the food, are not regulated by the FDA, and food recalls will not be issued for products with these kinds of food contaminants. Hair may be gross to find in your food, but unless that hair has another biological or physical contamination on it, then it won't harm you. It may also represent a lack of good manufacturing practices at that production facility. So if a company frequently has complaints of hair or other quality contaminants, the FDA may further investigate to ensure that the company is producing the food in a safe environment.

Controversial Food Contamination

Most examples of food contamination are pretty straight forward. They will either harm the consumer, or they will harm to quality of the product. Yet there are currently some controversial issues that some people consider as food contamination and should be indicated on the label.

One example of this are with GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Many individuals do not like GMOs so they want products produced with GMOs labeled as such so that consumers can know which products to avoid buying. A food contaminant can be considered as anything not desired in a product by the consumer but is not known by the consumer to be in a food product. Using this definition, GMOs can be considered a food contaminant.

For this reason, some countries and states have begun requiring companies to indicate if a product was produced with GMOs. The FDA has not required GMOs to be labeled because they have not been shown to cause harm to consumers.

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