Cross-Contamination: What Does it Mean?

Many of our policymakers are hard at work brainstorming how to re-open restaurants safely. Since avoiding unseen threats at restaurants is the allergy community’s forte, we thought we’d talk about cross-contamination—or cross-contact—and how to safely approach food prep if you’re preparing food for someone with a food allergy.   

Was the same spoon used to plate the mushrooms AND the buttered risotto? Were the food containers properly cleaned after their last use? Were the foods prepared on the same cutting board?! 

These are the questions that often run through the minds of the food allergic. Even if the food looks safe, there’s usually the lingering fear that comes with trusting others with you or your loved one’s health—particularly when they don’t appreciate the severity of the risk. 

Often, the term used to describe the scenario when foods mix is called cross-contamination. However, the term we should really be using is cross-contact. Let me explain.

Cross-contact vs. cross-contamination

We wrote about this topic back in 2017. Today we’ll provide a refresh about the important differences between these two terms. 

What is cross-contamination? 

Cross-contamination occurs when bacteria or a virus is unintentionally transferred from one food product to another, making the food unsafe. The key mark of distinction is that cross-contamination generally refers to food contamination, NOT food allergens. 

Say for example you cut up raw meat, then use the same cutting board to slice a watermelon immediately after. This could unknowingly pose a risk for bacteria from the raw meat to seep into your watermelon (yuck!) and is a good example of cross-contamination. 

What is cross-contact? 

Cross-contact occurs when a food allergen from one food touches another food. These amounts are often so small that they can’t be seen! A salad bar is a great example of how this could happen—the hard-boiled egg spoon could accidentally be used to scoop up tomatoes, transferring some of the egg to the tomatoes. 

Fun fact: most food allergens (with few exceptions, like heat-labile proteins) CANNOT be cooked out of foods, no matter how high the temperature. However, unlike cross-contact, properly cooking contaminated foods generally CAN eliminate foodborne offenders.

What about eating out? 

Now that we’ve provided the cross-contamination definition and cross-contact definition, you should be better equipped to tackle these discussions with confidence at restaurants or anywhere you may find yourself eating foods prepared by others. And hopefully, cross-contamination is not something you’ll have to worry about in these scenarios. 🤢

Have any questions about the difference between these two food terms? Drop us a line, we love a good food chat. 😁

– Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team 

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