What’s the Difference between Cross-Contamination and Cross-Contact? [Part 1]

There’s a misconception about the terms “cross-contamination” and “cross-contact” among the gluten-free community. I see these words being used interchangeably. 

These terms don’t meet the same thing. Why do I care if a restaurant or a grocery store is using the terms interchangeably? Because my confidence in their ability to understand how to manage gluten in a shared kitchen substantially decreases.

You’re probably thinking to yourself, Feriha (Ferry-ha), you’re overreacting. What’s the big deal? They sound like the same thing. 

In this blog post, I’ll discuss the difference between cross-contamination and cross-contact.

What is Cross-Contamination?

Have you ever had food poisoning? The CDC estimates that 48 million individuals suffer from foodborne illnesses every year in the United States (1). Maybe, you’ve heard of cruise ships returning back to shore because of a norovirus outbreak. Well, that my friends occurred due to cross-contamination.

You see norovirus is a pathogenic virus. Pathogenic means that it is capable of causing disease. In this case, norovirus is capable of causing symptoms of foodborne illness among individuals.

Let’s definite cross-contamination:

    • Cross Contamination: unintentional transfer of harmful microorganisms to food from other food and/or surfaces.

Why does this happen?

This happens because there has been a violation of food safety. This could have happened anywhere along the food production chain.

Let’s take a look at the food chain. A brief overly simplified chain of events that must occur for food to reach your home includes the following schematic:

    • Food is harvested [then transported]
    • Food is manufactured [then transported]
    • Stored at retail stores
    • Purchased [then transported]
    • Stored in your home
    • Food is prepared, cooked, and served
    • Leftovers are stored
    • Leftovers are re-heated

Everyone in this chain is responsible to ensure the safety of the food prior to it being consumed. Yet, when there is a mishap somewhere along that chain, foodborne illness can occur.  

Why is this a problem?

You might be thinking, I’ll just have the “stomach flu” for a couple days. Yet, that’s a minor symptom of foodborne illness. Yet, the symptoms of foodborne illness can be more complicated.

The CDC estimates that 3,000 individuals die every year in the United States because of foodborne illness (2). And certain individuals in the population are more susceptible to food poisoning.

Who’s more susceptible?

Infants/Children, Pregnant Women, Elderly, and Immunocompromised (example: cancer patients) Individuals.

Cross-Contamination versus Cross-Contact
Defining: Cross-Contamination versus Cross-Contact

What is Cross-Contact?

So, now you are thinking how is cross-contact different than cross-contamination? Let’s first define cross-contact:

    • Cross-Contact: unintentional transfer of protein to food from other food and/or surfaces.

Do you see what’s different between the two definitions of the terms? If you said the “transfer of protein” then you are absolutely right!

Why does this happen?

It happens due to not having adequate protocols in place in a shared kitchen to prevent cross-contact.

Why is this a problem?

If you have a food allergy and/or intolerance to gluten (because of Celiac Disease or Non Celiac Gluten Sensitivity) than cross-contact is your archenemies. Why? Because it is the proteins in these foods that cause allergic symptoms and/or symptoms related to intolerance of gluten.

Who’s more susceptible?

Anyone with a food allergy and/or intolerance to gluten is susceptible to cross-contact.

Conclusion:

You see there’s a difference between the words cross-contamination and cross-contact. Both are important to ensure the safety of the food that we are consuming but for different reasons.

When you hear cross contamination, think how food-borne illness be prevent?

And when you come across the word cross-contact, think how can a reaction to a protein in food be prevented? This is critical if you have a food allergy and/or intolerance to gluten.

I’ll be talking about how the symptoms you might experience due to cross-contamination and cross-contact in part 2. And I’ll cover how both cross-contamination and cross-contact can be prevented in your home and at restaurants in part 3.

What concerns do you have about preventing cross contamination and cross-contact?

Let me know in the comments below.

References:

  1. “Burden of Foodborne Illness: Overview | Estimates of Foodborne Illness | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/estimates-overview.html.
  2. “Burden of Foodborne Illness: Findings | Estimates of Foodborne Illness | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/2011-foodborne-estimates.html.

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