A Matter of Glass: Physical Contamination of Food

Everyone has heard about food poisoning. Most of us do not realize that physical contamination of food can be just as deadly as getting Salmonella or Botulism. All the items shown have been found in food. Bits of hard plastic, broken glass, nails, twist ties, toothpicks and paper clips are a few of the items that have accidentally been found in restaurant meals. This is not just sloppy foodhandling, but also a disregard for the health of the public. One meal I had at a Mexican restaurant was an enchilada dish. After biting into it, I found something hard. It was a thumb tack! The restaurant had been pinning up the orders with thumb tacks, and one had fallen into my meal. This could have been devastating if I had swallowed it. Another time, I was having lunch on a cruise ship when I tasted something very sharp and hard in my pudding. It was a piece of a yogurt container! The ship’s personnel were very apologetic but I doubt they did much to follow up and prevent this from happening again. A few of my students have experienced swallowing bits of broken glass accidentally. One student had a drink in the bar and thought the ice was not right. He realized he had swallowed broken glass and got his girlfriend to take him to the ER of the local hospital. He had an operation to remove bits of broken glass from his stomach. He was able to sue the restaurant and settled out of court. One of the bar staff had broken a glass and never cleared up the broken pieces which got mixed in with ice and served in his drink. One of the worst cases of physical contamination occurred a few years ago to an 18- year-old boy in the United States. After consuming his pizza, he felt very ill. At the Emergency Department of the local hospital, x-rays showed he had swallowed a bristle from a hard wire bristle brush used to scrub down the grill! It had punctured his esophagus and ripped his intestine. He had major surgery just in time otherwise he would have died. Any physical contaminant not meant to be swallowed can wreak havoc on our internal organs. Also a few years ago, a woman was accidentally served lye in sweet tea. An employee at Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in South Jordan, Utah, had mixed a chemical called “Clean Force Fryer Cleaner” into the sweet tea drink mix thinking it was sugar as it had a similar appearance. This product is primarily composed of sodium hydroxide, which is caustic and dangerous. It can cause severe burns and could have burned through the esophagus causing severe internal bleeding and injuries. This is a case of improper storage where chemicals are stored with food items. If containers or colors of products are similar, it is easy for employees to make a mistake especially when working in a busy restaurant. To prevent physical contamination in food, employees should remove a food if anything is dropped into it, not wear dangling earrings, heavy jewellery, or use fake nails, gel nails, or cut their nails at work. If a glass breaks in the pudding mix or spaghetti sauce, employees can’t remove all the pieces so it must be thrown out. Prevention is the key for safe public dining. The risks of severe internal injuries from physical objects which should not be in food will be eliminated.

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ENVIRO-FOOD CONSULTING is a foodservice consulting business run by Sally de la Rue Browne, Certified Public Health Inspector and Food Safety Specialist.

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