Part 2, Food Safety 101

By Rebecca McFarland
Frontier Extension Agent

In my article two weeks ago, I wrote about the Cyclospora outbreak and about how food gets contaminated. Remember that by far, biological hazards are the greatest threat to food safety. As a review, biological hazards (or microorganisms) are viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi. Illness-causing microorganisms cause most foodborne illness outbreaks, and are known as pathogens.

Many viruses, bacteria, and parasites cause illness but cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. On the other hand, some fungi, like mold, change the appearance, smell or taste of food, but they may not cause illness. 

Pathogens need six conditions to grow. You can remember them by the acronym FAT TOM:

Food – Pathogens need an energy source to grow, such as carbohydrates or proteins. These are commonly found in food such as meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs.

Acidity – Remember back to high school chemistry and checking the pH of different substances? pH is a measurement of how acidic or alkaline a food is. Food with a pH between 0.0 and 6.9 is acidic, while food with a pH between 7.1 and 14.0 are alkaline. Pathogens typically do not grow in alkaline food, such as crackers, or highly acidic food, such as lemons. They grow best in food that contains little or no acid (a pH of 4.6 to 7.5).

Temperature – Pathogens grow well in food held between the temperatures of 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F. This range is known as the temperature danger zone.

Time – Pathogens need time to grow. When food is in the temperature danger zone, pathogens grow. Under ideal conditions, certain bacterial populations can double in as short as nine minutes.

Oxygen – Some pathogens require oxygen (aerobic) to grow, while others grow when oxygen is absent (anaerobic).

Moisture – Pathogens require moisture in food to grow. Perishable foods requiring refrigeration usually have very high moisture contents. Moist food left over for long periods of time provides adequate moisture for bacterial growth.

Any type of food can be contaminated. But some types are better able to support the growth of pathogens. These types of foods have the right FAT TOM conditions that pathogens need to grow. They have the natural potential for contamination because of the way they are grown, produced, or processed. They are also commonly involved in foodborne illness outbreaks. Foods most likely to become unsafe include:

  • Milk and milk products
  • Meat, beef, pork, and lamb
  • Fish, shellfish and crustaceans
  • Baked potatoes
  • Tofu or other soy products
  • Sliced melons and cut tomatoes
  • Eggs and poultry
  • Heat-treated plant food, such as cooked rice, beans and vegetables
  • Sprouts and sprout seeds
  • Untreated garlic-and-oil mixtures

Be sure to read my article in two weeks to learn what you can do to keep your food safe.


McFarland_RebeccaRebecca McFarland is the Frontier Extension District family and consumer sciences agent. For more information, she can be contacted at the Extension district’s Ottawa office, 1418 S. Main, Suite 2, Ottawa, KS 66067, or call 785-229-3520, or email [email protected].

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