Unregulated Foods Could Make You Sick. Here’s What To Know Before Ordering Trendy TikTok Eats.

Experts share their advice for assessing the safety of mysterious new food products.
Yagi Studio via Getty Images

The latest viral food craze sweeping TikTok is Pink Sauce. Created by a private chef and food influencer who goes by the name Chef Pii, the sauce is a Barbie-pink mix of ingredients that include dragonfruit, honey, garlic, sunflower seed oil, milk and chili.

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Chef Pii, who has not revealed her real name, first shared a video of herself dipping a chicken tender into the shockingly bright sauce on TikTok in early June and started selling bottles of the stuff online on July 1.

As customers received their orders, however, several made their own videos alleging issues with the product, including inconsistency in texture, flavor and color, plus misspellings and errors on the nutrition label.

Chef Pii did not respond to a request for comment but defended her product in an interview with The Washington Post, saying that the sauce is safe and legal and made in a commercial facility that has been certified by the Food and Drug Administration. She also acknowledged the labeling errors and apologized in a follow-up TikTok.

Still, the controversy highlights an important lesson: Consumers shouldn’t be afraid to scrutinize safety standards. This is true for the food you buy anywhere, not just viral TikTok products.

“This is a very serious problem,” said Britanny Saunier, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, speaking generally about food safety. “Food poisoning can have long-lasting effects on your health and sadly, can even lead to death.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 Americans get sick from contaminated foods or beverages each year. That translates to about 48 million illnesses, with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Food poisoning can lead to sepsis, kidney failure, nervous system damage and more.

“Those who are pregnant, children under the age of 5, adults 65-plus, and those with a compromised immune system are at higher risk,” Saunier explained. “Food poisoning is no joke and more than just a rough night in the bathroom.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates foodborne illnesses cost $17.6 billion annually in medical expenses, lost productivity and death.

Experts also warn about the risk for botulism ― as well as other pathogens like listeria monocytogenes, salmonella and E. coli.

“A lack of any safety seal or cover to a product’s packaging potentially exposes the product to air,” said national food safety lawyer Jory Lange. “There are also concerns about the environment it creates for bacterial growth ― sugars, pH and water activity. In many cases, this environment can lead to the growth of botulism bacteria, which can emit a toxin that attacks the body’s nerves and causes difficulty breathing, muscle paralysis, and even death.”

Consumers can take steps to minimize the risk of foodborne illness. Below, experts share their advice for determining whether any new food product was created with safety in mind.

Understand the regulations in place

The USDA oversees meat, poultry and processed egg products, with the FDA regulating the rest of the food world.

“As a general matter, food producers are required to follow Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs) to help ensure the safety of food,” an FDA spokesperson told HuffPost. “CGMP regulations generally address matters including appropriate personnel hygienic practices, design and construction of a food plant and maintenance of plant grounds, plant equipment, sanitary operations, facility sanitation, and production and process controls during the production of food.”

There are requirements for pH and water activity to protect against botulism, for example. Labels should be accurate and disclose the presence of allergens, which could be life-threatening to some consumers. Food producers also need to adhere to state and local health department regulations.

“These regulations vary by food type, and how the food item is provided to the customer,” Saunier explained. “Food producers ― small and large ― are required to be licensed or registered to sell food to the public and comply with all the applicable food safety regulations.”

Although the government generally requires food manufacturers to produce their products in commercial facilities that have been inspected, most states have “cottage laws” that allow for the sale of food items created in home kitchens.

“Depending on the state, the product may be allowed to be shipped out of the state,” said Mindy Brashears, a professor and the director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech University. “While cottage laws can be good in governing the production of small batches of food, using them to circumvent government regulation should be a red flag.”

It’s worth noting that cottage laws often require producers to register their products and tend to apply only to low-risk foods like bread.

Look for safety information on the website or product

“Whenever ordering any food item online, check to see if the manufacturer seems legitimate,” Lange advised. “Do they have a well-made website? Does their website identify the manufacturer, and where it is located? Are the ingredients in the product listed (and spelled correctly)? Does the nutrition label make sense? Do they have a local business license where they are located?”

Check to see if there’s a way to contact the manufacturer and a physical address and phone number.

“Avoid any food manufacturers who don’t want to be contacted by their customers,” Lange said.

In your research, see if there’s any information about the manufacturing facility, any safety measures in place, delivery methods, ingredient sourcing, allergen information and whether the producer is registered or licensed to sell food.

Grocery stores and farmers markets typically require any products they sell to adhere to safety regulations. So, just as you’d expect safe production, packaging and labels for common store products, the same should go for food you buy online.

“If it is meat or poultry product, it will bear the USDA inspection stamp,” Brashears noted, adding that product labels should have a name and address for the manufacturer or distributor, or an establishment number.

Just ask

“If you’re not sure of the safety of the product or you have questions, that’s OK,” Saunier said. “Contact the producer before making a purchase and ask questions like, ‘How should I store this product?’; ‘What are the safety steps taken in making this product?’; ‘What safety steps are taken to ensure safe shipment of the product?’; ‘Has this product passed inspection?’ and ‘Are you registered/licensed to sell food?’”

Make a phone call or send an email or direct message on social media to politely inquire about manufacturing facilities and procedures. If they refuse to provide any information or get defensive, that’s likely a good sign to stay away.

“What you want to ask is if the facility they are using to process the products has a GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) certification,” noted Matt Regusci, director of growth at ASI Food Safety. “If not, does the facility at least have a third party GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) and HACCP (Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points) audit.”

Contact the regulators

“We understand that this issue can feel complicated,” Saunier said. “Keep it simple. Identify the state the producer is in and contact that state’s department that oversees food production to check if they are authorized to sell. Some of these departments might be called the health department or department of agriculture, for example.”

If you have further questions, Saunier recommended calling federal food safety regulators like the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-MPHotline (888-674-6854) and the FDA’s Food and Cosmetic Information Center at 888-SAFEFOOD (888-723-3366).

If the food vendor is affiliated with a retail establishment like a restaurant, the city or county health department might be more helpful.

“For an online food retailer regulated by the FDA, unfortunately, it gets more complicated,” said Marc Sanchez, an attorney who focuses on food safety. “While you can request information on FDA registration, which suggests the company is aware of the regulations, it is not a food safety certification.”

FDA-registered facilities are only inspected about every seven years, according to the Congressional Research Service, and third-party food safety certifications are “time-intensive” and probably “not suited to a company racing to market,” Sanchez said.

Be on guard when it arrives

“The U.S. food system relies on trust, but there’s no reason that needs to be blind trust,” Sanchez said. “I always encourage my students and friends to be skeptical about food. Look past the marketing hype and make an informed decision about what you’re buying.”

That skepticism should extend to the moment you first try the product. Before you scarf down a new food item, take a moment to examine how it looks, smells and feels.

“If you receive a food product by mail and it seems off in smell, taste, texture or color, err on the side of caution, discard the product and get in touch with the brand if possible to let them know,” registered dietitian Maggie Michalczyk advised.

Inspect the label

Pay attention to the product’s packaging and label as you unbox it.

“The label can tell you how closely the company is paying attention to the regulations,” Sanchez said. “For example, odd serving sizes, all even numbers in the nutrient declarations, a missing U.S. address, a missing allergen declaration ― if simple things like this are overlooked, what’s that say about how safely the product is made?”

File a complaint if necessary

“If you or a loved one experiences symptoms of food poisoning, seek medical attention and contact your local health agency,” Saunier advised. “The CDC public health gateway can help you locate your local health agency.”

Consider involving the FDA if it’s relevant, as well. The agency spokesperson noted that consumers may “voluntarily report a complaint or adverse event (illness or allergic reaction) related to that food product” by completing an electronic form online or on paper and calling an FDA consumer complaint coordinator.

But don’t write off all small food businesses

Being skeptical doesn’t mean refusing to try new products from small food companies.

“I am fully supportive of new food products and new items entering the market,” Brashears said. “There are many co-packers who can make the product in a sanitary facility overseen by the FDA to ensure food safety of the final product and to assist in getting label approval.”

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