As the mercury rises this summer, so will the number of cases of food poisining in Australia. To help you stay healthy, Jennifer Madz has some tips on how to handle and store food safely.
Summer is all about spending time outdoors with friends – an evening barbie with the family after a long, hot day, a picnic on the beach with the kids, a few nibblies and drinks with mates at a live sporting event... But, unfortunately, food is more at risk of being contaminated by bad bugs in summer than at any other time of the year. With the right conditions, these bugs can multiply in your food, leading to food poisoning and unpleasant side effects. More than 5 million Australians are affected by food-borne illnesses each year, and some of these cases can be fatal, so it pays to handle and store food correctly.
For centuries microbes such as bacteria have been used in food production, primarily for preserving food, and are responsible for many popular foodstuffs such as cheese, yoghurt, bread and fermented foods. In recent years, beneficial bacteria known as probiotics have been deliberately added to food products such as yoghurt in an attempt to promote gut health.
But there are other microbes (bacteria, fungi, mould, parasites and viruses) that can accidentally get into food and cause food poisoning. These usually receive a helping hand from us. Imagine the number of microbes being transferred to your hands as you go about your daily business, opening door handles, using public transport, touching money and typing on computer keyboards. Over the course of an average day, our hands can come into contact with more than 1000 different surfaces, and we may forget to wash our hands before handling food. Food poisoning incidents can also occur when food is kept at the wrong temperature or incorrectly reheated, or it may have been subjected to cross-contamination (from mixing raw and cooked foods). All up, these inappropriate handling and storage methods can lead to more than 200 known diseases that can be transmitted through food.
Sussing out symptoms
The symptoms of food poisoning can vary from mild to severe and can occur immediately after eating or hours later. They can last anywhere from 24 hours to five days. When you have food poisoning you will probably experience one or more of the following: vomiting, nausea, headaches, diarrhoea and stomach cramps. Depending on the contaminant and the severity, fever and chills, bloody stools, dehydration and nervous system damage may follow. Some food-borne pathogens such as Listeria bacteria can cause other symptoms such as miscarriage or meningitis in susceptible people. Food poisoning can also lead to other long-term illnesses.
Some groups of people are more vulnerable than others to the effects of food poisoning; these include pregnant women, the elderly, children and anyone with an illness that compromises their immune system.
Food-poisoning microbes can grow and multiply in some types of foods more easily than others. These high-risk foods include meat, poultry, dairy products, eggs, smallgoods such as salami and ham, seafood, cooked rice, cooked pasta, prepared salads such as coleslaw, pasta and rice, and prepared fruit salads.
There are five key principles that turn a food into an ideal breeding ground for bacteria:
Fuel: most foods contain ample nutrients for bacteria to grow.
Water: bacteria need moisture to grow. Without it, their growth slows down and may even stop.
Temperature: the temperature danger zone is between 5°C and 60°C.
Non-acidic environment: bacteria grow faster in an alkaline environment and slow down in more acidic ones.
Time: given perfect conditions, one lone bacterium can multiply into more than two billion bacteria in several hours.
Food safety at home
It may come as a surprise to you, but one in five reported food poisoning cases originates in the home. How could this be? Well, during the day, your pet may have run through the kitchen and contributed a few bad bugs to the microbe colony on your kitchen floor. Most of us would never contemplate eating off the floor, but some of us use our washing-up cloth to also wipe up floor spills. Then if you proceed to wash your plates or wipe your chopping board with the same cloth, those bad bugs are transferred across and begin to multiply, and before you know it you're racing to the toilet! Yep, food poisoning is as easy as that – and this is just one of the many ways it can happen to you and your family.
To keep your food hygienically clean, try to keep all utensils, equipment (including your hands!) and preparation areas squeaky clean. Make sure you thoroughly wash and dry utensils such as chopping boards and knives, as well as surfaces, after preparing raw meat, fish and poultry.
Always use different utensils and containers for raw and cooked foods and, wherever possible, use utensils rather than your fingers when handling food. Also, remember to keep long hair tied back and remove jewellery when preparing food, and always cover cuts on your hands with a waterproof dressing or use disposable gloves.
If you need to defrost a food such as poultry or stuffed or minced meat, make sure to completely defrost it in the fridge or microwave before cooking it. Avoid defrosting any food at room temperature and then placing it in the fridge until you need it, as this encourages the growth of bad food bugs. Fruit and vegetables should be washed prior to cooking to remove any soil residues that can house bad bacteria.
The way your food is cooked is as important as the way it is prepared, as insufficient cooking time is a common cause of food poisoning. For most foods and especially meat, poultry and eggs, cooking is enough to kill most food-poisoning bacteria.
Generally speaking, food should be cooked to at least 75°C or hotter, as this temperature kills most food-poisoning bacteria. And it should be eaten promptly at a temperature above 60°C.
Any food that is not eaten straight away should be left to cool until it stops steaming, then covered and promptly stored in the fridge or freezer. It's best not to refrigerate hot food.
In the microwave
Microwaves are great cooking tools – they're quick and convenient. But it's important to remember that if they're not used correctly, foods can be cooked unevenly, making them a perfect breeding ground for bacteria.
Try to cut food into evenly sized pieces that will all take about the same time to cook. Alternatively, you could put larger or thicker items towards the outer edge of the dish. It's also a good idea to cover the container of food with a microwave-safe lid or plastic wrap as this will help to trap the steam, promoting more even cooking.
Make sure you always rotate food in the microwave during cooking and pay attention to standing-time directions before checking to see whether the dish is completely cooked, as food will continue to cook even after the microwave has turned itself off.
Under the right conditions, cooked food can be stored in the fridge for about two to three days. Your fridge temperature should be below 5°C at all times. More foods are put in the fridge during the warmer months to prevent spoilage, but try not to overcrowd the fridge or the temperature may rise. Fridge temperatures may need to be adjusted occasionally to cope with extra food, the constant opening and closing of the fridge door and the higher ambient temperatures. It might be worth buying a thermometer to ensure your fridge is working at the right temperature.
It's important to always keep cooked foods and raw foods separate in the fridge, especially raw meat, poultry and fish, to avoid cross-contamination. Keep the raw foods at the bottom of the fridge to avoid raw juices dripping onto other foods and contaminating them. Try to avoid freezing single large amounts of food. Break it into smaller portions so you can defrost it and use it as needed. Remember to label each container (include the date) and remove as much air as you can to prevent freezer burn. And never refreeze defrosted foods.
The family pet
For many of us, our pets are part of the family - dining alfresco with us, going on family holidays and in some cases even sharing the same food. Though adorable, they can carry millions of germs including bacteria, viruses and, in some cases, infectious diseases, all of which can be easily transferred to us and our food. You wouldn't want to see a dog wandering through the kitchen of your local restaurant - and it's best to keep your pet out of yours, too. It's much easier to train them if you start from a young age. Don't keep food and water bowls for pets in or near the kitchen, and don't wash them with items you use to eat from or cook with. Always wash your hands after touching pets.
Flies, cockroaches and mice are all common pests that carry diseases and microbes, which they transfer to every surface they touch, including us! During the warmer months, more eggs are hatched and more pests run free.
The best way to keep your home pest-free is to keep it scrupulously clean. If you need to use a pest spray, put all food away prior to using it and keep food covered until the smell of chemicals disappears. Most pests will be in search of moist food and will head straight for your garbage bin - deter them by placing all food scraps in a garbage bin with a lid so they can't get in.
The dirt on dish cloths
Many of us tend to have a "one rag for all purposes" approach to cleaning in the kitchen. But moisture-filled dish cloths have the potential to be the perfect breeding ground for bad bugs and here's why:
they sit at room temperature (danger zone for microbe growth);
they contain food particles for the bugs' fuel;
they provide moisture for microbe activity.
To help keep your dish cloth safe from bad bugs, every two to three days soak it in bleach for a few minutes or wash it in boiling-hot water and detergent for a few minutes.
As simple as 1, 2, 3, 4
Food safety in the home comes down to four basic principles – get these right and you'll keep the bad food bugs at bay:
Clean: keep food preparation areas, utensils, equipment and yourself as clean as possible.
Cook: make sure you cook all raw foods and leftovers until they are steaming hot.
Chill: store ready-to-eat foods at less than 5°C. With any leftover cooked foods, chill quickly, then cover and refrigerate.
Separate: raw and cooked foods should be stored separately so there's no chance of cross-contamination.
Most entry points of supermarkets start with the fruit and vegetable section, followed by refrigerated meats, milk, cheese and yoghurts. But if you think about it, it doesn't really make sense to pick up all these cold food items first, because they'll just get warmer and warmer, possibly even reaching the danger zone.
Next time you're at the supermarket, head for the non-food aisles first, followed by the non-refrigerated drinks and dry goods. Next head to the fruit and vegetable section, then shop for refrigerated meats, stop off at the deli counter, then pick up some ready-to-eat foods and cold beverages. Finally, head to the frozen food and hot food sections. When packing your trolley, try to keep cold and hot foods separate, as well as raw and cooked foods.
At the checkout, unpack your trolley the same way you loaded it, keeping cold with cold and hot with hot. Put meat, poultry and seafood in separate bags and keep cold and hot foods well away from each other when transporting them home.
Anyone selling or providing food has a responsibility to supply you with safe food. But mistakes can happen and food can become contaminated without anyone knowing. So before you enter a store, keep in mind these points:
Food with damaged packaging (such as ripped bags or dented cans), bruised or battered fruit and vegetables, and cracked eggs will spoil faster.
Use-by dates are placed on perishable foods such as pre-prepared meals, fresh meat, poultry, seafood, dairy and pre-packaged salads and vegetables. The older the food, the more chance there is for microbes to grow and reach levels to cause us harm.
Best-before dates are used on stable products such as canned, dried and frozen foods. You can expect the quality of the product to deteriorate (such as changes in its taste and nutritional content) more than its safety when it reaches this date.
Load lines in refrigerators and freezers are marked by a black line. They are used as a packing guide to make sure cold air can circulate and chill all the foods evenly. As a general rule, it's best to avoid foods piled over the load line.
Food handlers who use one set of gloves for handling different types of foods, or who share utensils between foods, are not practicing safe food handling. If they're that sloppy in your sight, imagine them out of sight!
Did you know the temperature inside your car can reach 40Â°C and higher on those hot summer days? To limit food spoilage when travelling home, turn up the air-conditioner or wind down the windows and place packed food out of direct sunlight. Try not to leave your groceries in a hot car while you go off and run other errands. Or make it easy for yourself and store all your refrigerated and frozen foods in cooler bags - especially if your journey is longer than 30 minutes or it's a hot day.
The great outdoors
When eating outside, most foods such as salads, dips, cold BBQ chickens and antipasto platters are prepared ahead of time. These foods are already high-risk foods and need to be kept at less than 5°C, which is very unlikely sitting outside on the picnic table.
To help reduce the likelihood of food poisoning from these risky foods, only serve small amounts and keep the extras in the fridge (if eating at home) or in the Esky (if out at a picnic ground) - bring them out for seconds or top-ups as needed.
Serving and eating outside means there's a high possibility of pests such as flies diving into the uncovered salads, dips and meats, so it's always a good idea to keep all food covered when it's not being used. It's also a good idea, if possible, to keep all food in the shade.
Barbecue at the local park
When heading to a local park for a barbecue, it's important to transport all meat, salads, dips and cheeses in an Esky or cooler bag. Avoid packing just-cooked foods into the cooler bag for transport as it will raise the temperature of the bag.
The barbecue and park benches will only be as clean as the last people who used them, so always clean the barbie and eating area before use. Public barbies can also be unreliable, burning food on the outside and leaving them raw on the inside. This is an issue for high-risk foods such as chicken, hamburgers and sausages, so always check the meat has been cooked completely before diving in.
When you've finished for the day, throw out leftover foods if they haven't been kept cold. Cooked meat can be brought home for leftovers but it should reach your refrigerator within two hours of cooking.
There are some basic measures you can take to minimise the risk of food poisoning when going out for a meal.
Before deciding to buy food from a café or takeaway shop, stand back and watch the staff for a few minutes to see how they handle the food. At takeaway food outlets, are they wearing gloves and using separate tongs for handling raw and cooked foods? Are they using clean cloths to wipe surfaces? Are they well groomed and do they look like they're enjoying what they do? And does the place look clean? If you can answer yes to these questions, you have made a good choice. This is especially important if you're planning to eat seafood.
When purchasing takeaway food, hot food should be served steaming hot and cold food should feel cold to touch. Avoid eating lukewarm food as this is the perfect breeding ground for bugs. Pre-made sandwiches and rolls need to be stored in a refrigerated cabinet or kept at room temperature for less than four hours before being consumed.
The "special" sign that appears in takeaway food outlets at about 3pm is an attempt to get rid of food that has been sitting there all day - better to stick to safer, tastier food even if it means paying a little more for it.
Buying a BBQ chicken
Make sure the chicken is hot when you buy it. If you're taking it on a picnic, cool it first and pack it once it's cold. Keeping it warm is not a good idea, as bacteria will begin to grow rapidly. The heat can also warm up any cold foods around it.
If you purchase a BBQ chicken near closing time, try to eat it immediately and don't keep any leftovers. You never know how long it has been sitting there under the lights.
Unlike takeaway food, which is served at the appropriate temperature by the outlet and packaged into a suitable takeaway container, uneaten food taken away from a restaurant or café is exposed to the temperature danger zone (between 5°C and 60°C) and can become contaminated after you touch things on the way home such as the steering wheel and car door. If you decide to take a doggy bag home, refrigerate it as soon as possible and reheat to steaming before eating.
Golden rules for leftovers
Enforce the two- and four-hour rule: if you're not going to refrigerate your leftovers, you can store them for up to two hours after a meal; between two and four hours they must be consumed immediately; and if it's more than four hours after the food's been cooked, you need to throw it out!
Cover and label: always cover the storage container and label it with the date on which the food was cooked.
Reheat to steaming hot: never eat cold leftovers.
Keep food for three days: this length of time is safe for most leftovers but always check smell and appearance first.
Surprising food safety facts
Dishwashers give a cleaner clean when using hot water than manually cleaning items.
Large food outlets (such as big franchises) were found to have the least amount of microbes when compared to medium takeaway and small milk bar-style outlets.
Microbes found in food outlets at sporting venues were suggestive of staff washing their hands improperly after using the toilet.
Bacteria and infectious microbes can develop resistance to antibacterial wipes and sprays, which can lose their effectiveness over time.
UV light from the sun kills microbes.
The top 10 food poisoning culprits in Australia
The following bacteria, mould, parasites and viruses can cause the symptoms of food poisoning:
Foods where these microbes can be found
Raw poultry and unpasteurised milk
Raw poultry, eggs, pork and processed meats
Salads, raw fruit and vegetables, milk and dairy products
Undercooked raw mince beef, unpasteurised milk, fruit and vegetables
Meat and meat products, poultry and egg products, salads such as egg, tuna, potato and pasta, cream-filled baked products, sandwich fillings, milk and dairy products
Poorly cooked seafood; also contagious through bodily fluids of infected persons and the air
Unpasteurised milk, raw meat and seafood, ice-cream, soft cheeses, smoked fish, luncheon meats, hot dogs, refrigerated salads and products including salads and sandwiches
Rice and grain products, dairy products and powdered milk
Casseroles and other slow-cooking dishes that include meat and gravy
Improperly processed home or commercial canned foods, contaminated honey
Busy little hands
Children have an inquisitive nature and like exploring places. If they see something unusual, they are likely to pick it up, whether it's an insect, a rock or even a bit of rubbish. They also touch their faces and each other a lot and don't usually wash their hands unless there is someone there to remind them.
To stop any nasty bugs from spreading, it's a good idea to change their clothes after they've been out to the park, daycare centre or friend's place, and keep soap near the kitchen sink so they can easily wash their hands before touching food, utensils and kitchen surfaces.
How to wash your hands
Before preparing food, wash your hands in warm soapy water for at least 30 seconds (the time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday"). Don't forget to wash between your fingers and around nails. At home, you should wash your hands after:
using the toilet
handling raw meat, chicken, fish or eggs
blowing your nose
touching your mouth
patting your own pets or other animals
gardening or picking fresh herbs, fruit or vegetables
handling objects covered in dirt
being in contact with bodily fluids such as saliva or blood
In a nutshell
Many of the food poisoning cases that occur in Australia each year could be avoided by practicing simple habits such as washing your hands before and after food preparation, keeping foods out of the hot summer sun, and washing your fruit and vegetables before using them. Remember, if in doubt, throw it out!
If you have serious concerns about the way food has been handled or prepared in a café, restaurant or takeaway shop, you can report them to your local council's health department.
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