Summer is here – but it’s also the season of foodborne illness. Here’s what’s putting you at risk and how to avoid it.
You know the feeling; one minute you’re perfectly fine when, out of the blue, your stomach does a tremulous flip-flop, you might even feel cold and clammy and, with a sickening realisation, you know you’re heading into the long and very unpleasant tunnel of food poisoning.
It’s bad enough suffering the effects of food poisoning yourself, let alone unwittingly giving it to family and friends.
And yet, in Australia it’s estimated that 5.4 million cases of food poisoning happen each year. Summer is the prime time as the weather heats up and we take our food outside. This means less refrigeration and often a lack of the usual hygiene around the barbie – adding extra risk of germs and getting sick.
Surprising ways we’re putting ourselves at risk
When the NSW Food Authority analysed almost 200 real life barbecues, they discovered “a lot of people are exposing themselves to possible food poisoning through some common risky practices.”
So let’s look at chicken, a key offender. A Food Standards Australia and New Zealand survey found 84 per cent of raw chicken carcasses contained food poisoning bacteria – which may not be a problem as long as the chicken is cooked properly.
The real issue is 60 per cent of home cooks put themselves at risk by washing poultry before it’s cooked, according to The Food Safety Information Council.
“Washing poultry splashes these bacteria around the kitchen, cross contaminating sinks, taps, your hands, utensils, chopping boards and foods that aren’t going to be cooked like salads or desserts,” says Dr Michael Eyles, chairman of the Food Safety Information Council.
It’s this sort of unwitting contamination that’s often the most harmful. So our seemingly innocent food prep habits are a good starting point to better hygiene. Dr Eyles cites the example of patting your raw meat dry with a tea towel as a prime offender. “Home cooks are probably following what their parents or grandparents did in the past,” he says. But these days we have a much better understanding of how food contamination works.
It’s known the bacteria that cause food poisoning multiply rapidly between 5°C and 60°C (known as the temperature danger zone). So, leaving meat out on the bench for example, will be giving the bacteria the prime conditions to grow, increasing your risk of food poisoning.
The way you test your chicken is also important. “Cooking poultry right through kills the bacteria, making it safe. However, 16 per cent of those surveyed, rather than using a meat thermometer (or checking if juices run clear and are no longer pink) say they eat some chicken to see if it tastes cooked, with males significantly more likely to do this than females,” Dr Eyles says. If the chicken isn’t quite cooked, then you increase your risk of getting sick.
Another key offender is putting any type of cooked meat on the same plate you used for raw meat, according to the NSW Food Authority’s study.
Also, quite unwittingly, simply touching your face during food prep allows harmful bacteria to be picked up from raw food and lurk in the throat, nose, skin and hair only to be transferred back onto cooked food, possibly contaminating it and increasing your risk of food poisoning.
“Without a microscope you won’t see any bacteria, so you must handle chicken or raw meat as if it were present,” says Accredited Practicing Dietitian Joanna McMillan.
As a simple rule, it’s a good idea to adopt the ‘4 Cs’ of preventing food poisoning – that’s cleanliness (hands and utensils), cooking meat thoroughly, covering and chilling food unless you’re eating it.
What happens in our bodies when we eat something dodgy?
When we ingest harmful bacteria from our food, our immune system begins a chain reaction designed to rid the body of the invader. Symptoms, and how quickly they develop, depend on the germ and also how much of it we’ve been exposed to.
Symptoms can start almost immediately, or within a couple of hours of eating the contaminated food or drink. However, some types of food poisoning can take several days to develop, which makes it very difficult to establish the culprit.
The most common symptoms are nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps and fever. Often food poisoning will pass within 24–48 hours and plenty of fluid and rest is normally all that’s required for most of us.
Drinks containing electrolytes (like most sports drinks, or Hydralyte or Gastrolyte from your pharmacy) are helpful with diarrhoea and vomiting as dehydration is a major risk.
Bland foods are usually better tolerated, but if you really can’t keep anything down because of nausea, then it’s time to see a doctor.
Other indicators you should seek professional help include recent overseas travel; blood in your faeces; severe headache; dehydration; or if you’re just not feeling any better after two days.
Are there any lasting effects?
While food poisoning is not serious for most people, it can have serious consequences for others. People at most risk of adverse effects from food poisoning are young children, older people, pregnant women and anyone whose immune system is compromised by other disease. If that’s the case, or you’re on medication for heart disease or diabetes, see your doctor straight away if you suspect food poisoning.
While most food poisoning will pass without major illness, it’s unpleasant, and importantly, can be easily avoided. So spare a minute to consider how you’re going to make your food prep safer this summer.
Not enough ice at the barbie
Tongs move bad bacteria around
Touching your face, then food, can spread contamination
Bacteria thrive once food is above 5°C
Micro splashes spread contamination around your kitchen
Raw food juices spread bacteria
Wash hands using the 20+20 rule
Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and hot water.
Dry your hands for 20 seconds with a clean, dry towel or paper towel.