Hand washing before sitting for the food is a basic tenet inculcated even at young age because of the underlying principle that cleaning removes dangerous disease causing bacteria and other harmful materials preventing their access to the stomach. There are many pathogens that can cause minor stomach upset and some times serious gastroenteritis. Even hand washing is mired in controversy though many believe that thorough washing using soap suds can remove most, if not all, harmful bacteria from hands. The efficiency of washing is a function of quantity of water used and thoroughness with which hands are rubbed against each other. Use of antiseptic hand wash preparations often leave behind significant counts of bacteria leaving no alternative to washing under profuse running water. The disturbing question that keeps coming back when hand washing is considered pertains to water shortage being experienced in many developing countries making it impractical to expect people to use the required water for thorough cleaning before touching the food. The problem is very acute in countries where food is eaten with bare hands unlike westerners who use spoons and forks.
Another dimension to food safety is posed by the need to store foods for some time and it is very common for people to store prepared foods for at least a few hours, especially when excess foods are prepared, for consuming later. Of course refrigerators do help to control the density of microbial colonies because bacterial growth is temperature sensitive. But how many households in India or other developing countries have access to refrigerators? Very few families belonging to middle and upper class income group can afford the luxury of refrigerators and foods will have to remain under ambient conditions for a few hours before actual consumption. Even when refrigerators are available, house wives rarely shove the food into refrigerator under the mistaken impression that it is safe for few hours. Unfortunately the bacteria can grow exponentially if the initial contamination level is high, especially in foods rich in nutrients. Some of the serious contaminants which have caused havoc recently include Staphylococcus aureus, Clostridium perfringens, Listeria monocytogenes and Escherichia coli O157;H7
There is an impression that bacteria pose danger only in nutrient rich foods like meat, fish, poultry etc which are considered highly perishable and most incidences of food poisoning occur in this category of foods. But the belief that other foods are not vulnerable is a fallacy as reflected by a series of food poisoning episodes involving such innocuous materials like spinach, tomato, lettuce, peanuts, walnuts etc. Improper handling and storage can make any food vulnerable to contamination and adequate precaution must be taken to preempt such incidences. According to microbiological experts all foods are risky to be exposed to a bacterial "danger zone" when temperatures are between 5C and 60C enabling these bugs to multiply rapidly. It is not exaggeration when a microbiologist states that every single bacterial cell can multiply within half an hour reaching several millions in less than 12 hours!.One can imagine the consequences of the presence of such high levels of bacteria in foods, especially if they are pathogenic!.
What about reheating? Does it help to make the old food safe? It depends on the nature of food and extent of heating. Cold foods such as salads are not fit to be heated while cooked foods cannot be reheated to kill all the contaminants without compromising on the eating quality. The composition of food also makes a difference. While high salt or sugar or acidic foods are relatively safer, others with normal composition and taste can pose safety risks of higher order. As a thumb rule experts believe that if cooked food is to be preserved for a few hours, it must be refrigerated under 4C or reheated to at least to 75C before consumption to be safer.
There is an increasing tendency for people o go for "fresh", "local" "natural" or organic foods and the reason is not far to seek. It is simply the fear factor that is driving millions of consumers away from preserved or processed foods and the food industry is to blame itself for this sorry situation. Historically food technology was evolved over centuries to extend the supply chain so that adequate foods are available all year round. Use of salt or sugar which increases the osmotic pressure in food system to discourage proliferation of pathogens and many spoilage organisms continues even to day though from healthy angle they are shunned by a substantial strata of the society. While uncontrolled salt consumption is known to be linked to hyper tension and cardiovascular disease, high sugar can be responsible for dental decay, diabetes, obesity and other disorders. Organolepticaly too much sugar or salt can create quick satiety. Salt and sugar preserved food products can be farthest from the concept of fresh foods.
Sun drying or the more scientific mechanical drying of perishables which contain high levels of moisture gives products with altered textural features but it still served the purpose of extending the life of the food significantly due to low water activity in such foods after removing bulk of the water content. Besides, the reconstituted final product has drastically different eating quality, not often liked by consumers. Vast improvements in dehydration technology have contributed to better finished products and freeze drying can give a product that can be quite satisfactory though cost wise such products can be very expensive. However dehydrated foods can also never qualify to be called fresh.
One often hears about "Dairy Fresh" milk which is probably taken to mean that the milk is as fresh as the one milked directly from the cow! In reality milk travels over some distance from the point of milking, gets refrigerated, pasteurized and packed before reaching the consumer. In a country like the US raw milk is never allowed to be sold directly and therefore fresh milk in literal sense can never be seen by a US consumer while in India really fresh milk is sold directly to homes within a matter of minutes! Similarly fresh fruits and vegetables which are sold in many markets in India are considered really fresh because not much time elapses between their harvest and bringing to the market. In contrast most fresh produce sold in super markets cannot claim to be fresh because they undergo a series of "processing" involving cleaning, washing, sorting, trimming, cold storage and distribution over considerable distances.
Modern technologies like MAS and MAP in combination with cold storage can extend the life of fresh produce for weeks and months though quality-wise they will always be inferior to farm fresh counterparts. That raises the inevitable question as to what qualifies to be called "fresh"? The current understanding that any food put on sale as early as possible after harvesting is some what vague and there does not appear to be any scientific definition universally accepted. The perishable nature of foods in general calls for preservation, at least till they reach the market and ultimately the bottom line is that the eating quality and nutritive value should not be adversely affected to any significant extent.
As foods, especially the perishable ones are seasonal in nature, their year round availability and supply can be assured only if they are preserved for some time. While some foods like apple, potato, onion etc are amenable to long term storage under MAS and low temperature environment, others can still be stored under such conditions for limited periods. Frozen storage or freeze drying can be the best way of protecting a food from nutrition angle but the consumer will have to compromise on eating quality as there will be deterioration in this respect due to freezing. While under optimum frozen temperature conditions almost all foods can have storage life beyond an year, the sensory quality of products when thawed can never be the same as the fresh material before freezing.
While advances in technology and transportation extends the shelf life of food, there is a price for availability and convenience in terms of nutrition and taste. Probably obsession with the word "fresh" will have to be overcome eventually as it is impossible for the world to meet the demand for such "farm fresh" foods of every consumer in the world. While intense debate goes on regarding even the ability of man to meet the bare food needs of the ever expending population, the protagonists of fresh foods are well advised not to divert the attention of the world from the basic task of increasing food production and making them available to people with maximum nutrient content. The story of organic foods also bears a parallel to fresh foods as it is logistically impossible to raise and supply such foods to meet the needs of entire population! In spite of movements like Local Produce, Slow Foods, Urban Gardening, Roof-top farming, Organic farming etc, it is unlikely that every person on this planet can be provided with "fresh" foods as it is understood commonly.
It is often said that consumers "eat" the foods first through their "eyes", then through the nose and finally through the oral cavity. While the color and appearance of food help to attract the consumer near to the food, the nasal tool provides a feed back regarding the smell or odor that emanates from the product. Of course oral cavity is the ultimate place where the food is eventually accepted or rejected. The food processing industry invariably tries to make the food desirable from all angles.
One of the moot questions regarding the relationship between color and food acceptability is whether the consumer has really any affinity towards particular colors or the industry is creating a situation where consumer is conditioned to choose foods which imitate the natural colors. It is understandable that red color is used to imitate natural fruits or vegetable based products by the processing industry largely because naturally grown produce does not give uniform color and for mere consistency and uniformity industry is tempted to use matching colors, most of which are synthetically developed. Slow realization has dawn on the industry that use of synthetic colors might not be desirable in the long run, seeking alternative means to achieve the goal of product uniformity. One of the earliest cases of artificial colors being phased out was in tomato products and to day suitable varieties have been developed with required color tint for giving bright red colored products.
Organically processed foods are made without use of unnatural ingredients and if there is a thriving market for these specialty products credit must go to the consumers for shunning artificial colors in large numbers. Often use of color is reported being used to camouflage inferior quality raw materials and deceive the consumer. It was the synthetic beverage industry that resisted banning of artificial colors used commonly to create products resembling natural juices. Probably they have a point in that it may be some what comical to offer an orange flavored beverage based on sugar and flavor as a colorless product. Here is a technological necessity to use external colors but such colors need not be synthetic as there are a few natural color sources already established for use by the industry.
While technical justification may be there for use of colors in products resembling natural ones, how can one approve many fabricated products which use a range of artificial colors with no real justification except to attract consumers, especially the kids. If to day the world has reached a stage where the safety of all synthetic colors is being questioned, only the industry has to blame itself because these colors were used indiscriminately in most products just to tempt the consumers. If these were used with moderation or eliminated from many products which do not need them, there would not have been any clamor for their ban. For example how any manufacturer can justify use of half a dozen colors in a chocolate based candy type of product targeted at children?
It is in this context one has to view the proposed action by the European Food Safety Authority which lowered the ADI for Ponceau 4R (E124), Quinoline Yellow (E104), Sunset Yellow (E110) some time back based on some valid scientific findings regarding their safety. How far the reported link between these colors as well as three other colors and sodium benzoate with hyperactivity in children is reliable, one does not know. But the benefit of doubt must be given in favor of the consumer safety and till more studies come out repudiating the linkage, it is better to err on the side of caution. The ADI lowering prompted the European Commission to propose amendments to currently permitted levels. This will become the subject of more wide-spread work with a view to remove them eventually from food products. But mandating the industry by the European Safety agency to insert warning label on hyperactivity risk on products containing any one of the three colors above is timely.