By Jason Masters
     Environmental Health Director

Common Food Myths


Q: Hi Jason, long time reader, first time writing in… I just found some leftover lasagna in my fridge. I don’t know how long it has been there, but it doesn’t smell bad, so it’s safe, right?


A: Oh. My. God. Becky. Look at that myth…

This leads me into a whole section I like to call… Fact or Fiction

So, my question is, who leaves lasagna in their fridge that long? Lasagna is delicious.

In North Carolina, according to the NC food code manual, a food can be held for 7 days at 41 degrees F or below. Don’t know the temperature of your fridge? Pick up one of these.

And remember, the ambient temperature of your refrigerator needs to be about 38 degrees F to maintain 41 degrees F in food.

There is no way to accurately determine if a food is safe to eat based on smell, look, taste, sliminess, length of fur, whether or not your brother-in-law would eat it, etc. Just because there may be a visible lack in quality doesn’t necessarily mean a food isn’t safe to eat, but the best recommendation I can make is, “when in doubt, throw it out.”

These apples are organic, so I’m just going to dig right in…yum, yum…crunchy!

Just because a food is labeled as organic or all natural doesn’t automatically make it safe to eat as is. The term “organic” usually applies to foods that are grown without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Meat or dairy products labeled as “organic” are fed diets that are lacking in hormones and antibiotics. Before a product can be labeled as “organic”, a government entity (the USDA, through the National Organic Program) must certify the farm (or farms) as meeting strict criteria known as the USDA organic standards. And while the organic movement is growing in the United States, as well as here in Buncombe County, the organic standards say nothing about bacteria or viruses that may come in contact with the product. E. Coli (as well as other toxin producing bacteria, and viruses) is very prevalent in soil and water runoff, and frequently comes in contact with produce. The best routine is to simply wash all produce under running water.

I just got home from my favorite restaurant, and now I’m feeling sick. It must have been the two dozen raw oysters, XXtra hot wings, and two margaritas followed by a 3 egg omelet, right? I don’t think I can ever eat these foods again, or smell tequila, or look at oyster shells, etc. etc.…

While this…eclectic…combination of foods may cause even the most iron-gutted of us to cringe, it is USUALLY not what you most recently ordered at “Vibrio’s Oyster and Omelet Shack”* that got you sick. Although there are some cases of the onset of symptoms of foodborne illness occurring within 1-2 hours, these are associated with added ingredients or methods of preparation (i.e. foods cooked in metal lined cans, or the addition of metallic salts) or allergic reactions (MSG, or certain histamines associated with fish). Most true foodborne illness symptoms occur several hours to days after ingestion. Norovirus, a very common foodborne illness, for example, usually takes 12-48 hours to show up. And believe me, when it does, you will know. If you think you are becoming sick, try to remember the last several places you have eaten. It will be important to know these things when you call to inform the environmental health department of your illness…(you DO call and report your foodborne illness, right?) Also, go to the doctor. They will be able to confirm that what you are experiencing is actually a food borne illness, and not just indigestion…(plop plop, fizz fizz)

I just dropped my cheeseburger on the ground, but it’s cool, because, 5 second rule, right? Fact or fiction?

My personal favorite of all the food myths…

The real answer is: Partially fiction (or partially fact, if you are one of those half-full people). It really depends on the food, and the floor. The best explanation may be in the form of an example. Let’s say you dropped your pretzel on a hardwood floor.

Because both the pretzel and the hardwood floor are dry, transference of bacteria MAY be at a minimum. Now, if the floor was wet because you spilled all the juice out of the chicken package, OR if the pretzel is wet because your 3 year old licked all the salt off, well then, that’s a different story (and it might be a good idea to get your kids blood pressure checked). Same deal if it’s a wet food and dry floor. A cheeseburger dropped on a dry floor is probably going to pick up some nasty stuff. And of course, moist food and moist floor (or ground), well, that’s just a recipe for disaster. Bacteria don’t have a time limit on how quickly they jump on foods. It’s really fun to drop your chocolate chip cookie in front of your kids and yell “5 SECOND RULE!!” before wrestling it out of their hands, but the best course of action is to consider this a teaching moment, and err on the side of caution, and discard the food.

You can reach the food and lodging division of the environmental health section at 828-287-6317 (Rutherford), 828-894-8004 (Polk), or 828-652-2921 (McDowell), with any questions related to food safety.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent*