Every day people get ill from the food they eat. Micro-organisms including bacteria, viruses and moulds found in food can cause food poisoning, leading to a whole host of unpleasant symptoms, such as stomach pains, diarrhoea and vomiting.
Food poisoning can sometimes lead to gastroenteritis, which is inflammation of your stomach and bowel, or even more serious health problems, such as blood poisoning (septicaemia) and kidney failure.
Anyone can get food poisoning but some people, including babies, children and older people, are more likely to have serious symptoms. If you’re pregnant, you need to be particularly careful not to get food poisoning.
If you just bear in mind a few simple points, it can help prevent a bout of food poisoning for you and your family.
One of the most important things you can do is to make sure that your hands are clean at all times – although it sounds simple enough, many of us are guilty of forgetting at some point.
Cleaning your hands doesn’t mean just passing your hands under the tap – give them a proper scrub with soap. In particular, remember to wash your hands:
- after using the toilet
- before you handle any food
- after you handle raw meat
If possible, remove any rings, watches and bracelets before you handle food. This is because bacteria can hide under these and transfer to your food.
Before you start to prepare any food, make sure that the area you’re working in and the utensils you’re using are clean. Clean worktops thoroughly and wash utensils with washing-up liquid and hot water, or use a dishwasher if you have one. Make sure you clean up any spilt food straight away.
Change all tea towels, dishcloths and other cleaning materials regularly as these can harbour bacteria, especially if they are damp.
- after using the toilet
If you don’t follow the storage guidelines that come with your food, you could let yourself in for real problems. If you store food in the wrong place or at the wrong temperature, it can lead to the growth of bacteria. Here are some simple tips to follow.
- Always check labels for guidance on where to store food.
- Make sure you keep your fridge between 0 and 5°C and your freezer at less than -18°C – this will prevent bacteria from multiplying. You can use a thermometer to regularly check these temperatures, or your fridge or freezer may have a thermometer built in.
- Store fresh and frozen food in the fridge or freezer as soon as possible after you buy it. This is especially important in hot weather.
- Keep raw meat and seafood separate from other foods.
- Store raw meat in an airtight container at the bottom of the fridge to prevent juices or blood dripping onto other food.
- Defrost frozen foods in the fridge. Place them on a plate or in a container as they defrost, so they don't drip onto or contaminate other foods.
- Don't store opened tins of food in the fridge – transfer the contents to a suitable airtight container instead.
- If you’re keeping cooked leftovers, allow them to cool to room temperature before you store them in the fridge. Make sure you use up any leftovers within two days.
- Throw away any food that has passed its use-by date.
- Always check labels for guidance on where to store food.
There are a few points to remember when it comes to preparing your food.
Don't handle food if you have stomach problems, such as diarrhoea or vomiting, or if you're sneezing or coughing regularly.
Check food labels before you decide what to use. Shop-bought foods may come with two dates: a use-by date and a best before date. Don’t use any foods that have passed their use-by date, even if you think they look fine, as they may not be safe to eat. However, you can eat food after its best before date as this only refers to the quality of the food, rather than the safety of eating it. The only exception is eggs, which contain a type of bacteria called Salmonella that may multiply after the best before date. Although you can eat eggs a day or two after their best before date (provided you cook them thoroughly), it’s safer to throw eggs away once this date has passed.
Keep anything that should be refrigerated out of the fridge for as short a time as possible, especially if the temperature is high or the room is very warm.
Always use different chopping boards and utensils to prepare raw meat or fish. This is because they contain harmful bacteria that can spread to anything they touch, so it’s important to keep these away from other foods. The bacteria are removed during cooking, but it’s important not to let them come into contact with any food that you’re not going to cook before eating. You can buy colour-coded chopping boards (for example, red for raw meat and green for fruit and vegetables), which can help to prevent confusion.
If you cook food at temperatures over 70°C, it will kill off any bacteria. If food isn't cooked at a high enough temperature, bacteria can still survive. Here are some more tips for cooking food properly.
- Follow the recipe or packet instructions for cooking time and temperature, and make sure you pre-heat your oven properly.
- Food should be piping hot and you should be able to see steam coming out before you serve it. You can use a food thermometer to check that food is cooked to the right temperature.
- Take special care that you cook meat all the way through. Unless you’re cooking steak or lamb and beef joints rare, it shouldn’t be pink in the middle. Use a clean skewer to pierce the meat. If it’s cooked properly, the juices will run clear. If you’re cooking meat rare, make sure that it’s properly sealed (browned) on the outside.
- Always reheat pre-cooked food thoroughly and only reheat it once.
- When cooking food in the microwave, stir it well from time to time to ensure that it’s evenly cooked all the way through.
- Food poisoning. eMedicine. www.emedicine.medscape.com, published 19 March 2012
- WHO consultation to develop a strategy to estimate the global burden of foodborne diseases. World Health Organization. www.who.int, published 25 September 2006
- Food safety in pregnancy. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, published June 2011
- Gastroenteritis. Prodigy. www.prodigy.clarity.co.uk, published September 2009
- Preparing. Food Standards Agency. www.eatwellscotland.org, accessed 7 August 2012
- Cleaning. Food Standards Agency. www.eatwellscotland.org, accessed 7 August 2012
- Storing. Food Standards Agency. www.eatwellscotland.org, accessed 7 August 2012
- Dietary guidelines for Americans. US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. www.cnpp.usda.gov, published December 2010
- Cooking. Food Standards Agency. www.eatwellscotland.org, accessed 7 August 2012
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