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Food safety


Expert reviewer Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
Next review due November 2020

Food safety (hygiene) isn’t just something for restaurants to worry about. It’s important to know how to prepare food safely and hygienically at home too.

There are four important elements to good food hygiene:

  • cleaning 
  • storing 
  • preparing 
  • cooking

A woman making a salad

About food safety

Food safety is important for the following reasons.

  • Every day people get ill from the food they eat. Bacteria, viruses and parasites found in food can cause food poisoning.
  • Often, there's no way of telling if food is contaminated because it might not look, taste or smell any different from normal.
  • Food poisoning can lead to gastroenteritis and dehydration or potentially even more serious health problems such as kidney failure.
  • Food poisoning can be serious in babies, children, older people and pregnant women because they have a weaker immune system.

If you bear in mind a few simple points, you can help prevent a bout of food poisoning for you and your family. 

Cleaning

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after you handle food. Dry them with a separate hand towel (not a tea towel).
  • Remove your jewellery before you handle food – bacteria can hide under jewellery, such as rings.
  • Clean the area you’re working in and the utensils you’re using. Clean up any food spills straight away.
  • Change your tea towels and dishcloths regularly because they can harbour bacteria, especially if they're damp. 

Storing food

If you don’t follow the storage guidelines that come with your food, you could let yourself in for real problems.

  • Check labels for advice on how to store food.
  • Keep your fridge at 5°C or below, and your freezer colder than –18°C to prevent bacteria from multiplying. A cool bag or box can help to keep chilled foods cold when you're returning home from the supermarket, particularly in warm weather. 
  • Put foods in the fridge or freezer within two hours of a trip to the shops. Do this within an hour in the summer if temperatures go over 32°C.
  • Keep raw meat and seafood separate from other foods in airtight containers at the bottom of the fridge. 
  • Defrost frozen foods in the fridge. Put them on a plate or in a container as they defrost so they don't drip onto other foods.
  • Don't store opened tins of food in the fridge – transfer to an airtight container instead. Once you open a tin, bacteria can get into the contents. The tin from the can might transfer to the contents too.
  • Allow leftovers to cool to room temperature (for no more than two hours) before you put them in the fridge. Divide them into shallow containers so they cool faster, then put the containers in your fridge.
  • Eat your leftovers within two days – or a day for rice. 

Preparing food

  • Don’t eat any foods that have passed their use-by date, even if they look fine. They might not be safe to eat. You can eat food after its best-before date because this refers to the quality of food rather than the safety.
  • Take chilled foods out of the fridge at the last minute before you eat.
  • Use separate chopping boards and utensils to prepare raw meat or fish, and clean them well with soap and warm water after each use. Or pop them in a dishwasher at a high temperature setting. Raw meat and fish contain harmful bacteria that are killed during cooking, but they can spread from your knives and chopping boards to other foods if you don’t wash them away. 

Cooking food

Cooking at temperatures over 70°C for at least two minutes will kill any bacteria in food. Bacteria can survive cooler temperatures than this, so it's vital to cook food properly.

  • Follow the instructions for cooking time and temperature. This includes preheating your oven – if you don’t, food will take longer to cook so the recommended cooking time might not be long enough.
  • Make sure food is piping hot – you should see steam coming out before you serve it. A food thermometer is a handy tool to check if food is cooked to the right temperature (over 70°C – but this will depend on what you’re cooking).
  • Cook meat all the way through. Aside from rare steaks, or lamb and beef joints, meat 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.
  • Cook shellfish until the shell opens and the flesh looks opaque and flakes easily if you prod it with a fork.
  • Always reheat pre-cooked food thoroughly so it’s steaming hot all the way through.
  • Only reheat pre-cooked food once.
  • If you're cooking food in a microwave, stir it well from time to time to ensure that it’s evenly cooked all the way through. 

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Related information

Tools and calculators

    • Food poisoning. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last updated 26 October 2016
    • Food poisoning. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated 26 June 2015
    • Food safety: what you should know. World Health Organization. www.searo.who.int, published 7 April 2015
    • Food safety: it's especially important for at-risk groups. US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). www.fda.gov, last updated 8 November 2017
    • Sneed J, Phebus R, Duncan-Goldsmith D, et al. Consumer food handling practices lead to cross-contamination. Food Protection Trends 2015; 35(1):36–48. www.foodprotection.org
    • Food hygiene: a guide for businesses. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, published June 2013
    • Safe food handling: what you need to know. US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). www.fda.gov, last updated 15 November 2017
    • Keeping your kitchen clean. nidirect. www.nidirect.gov.uk, accessed 18 October 2017
    • Food labelling and packaging. Department of Health. www.gov.uk, accessed 18 October 2017
    • Food safety at home. US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). www.fda.gov, published 19 May 2017
    • Storing food safely. nidirect. www.nidirect.gov.uk, accessed 18 October 2017
    • Food standards: labelling, durability and composition. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. www.gov.uk, published 11 June 2015
    • Cooking food properly. nidirect. www.nidirect.gov.uk, accessed 18 October 2017
    • Safe catering – your guide to making food safely. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, published 2007
  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, November 2017
    Expert reviewer Mr Paul McArdle, Registered Dietitian
    Next review due November 2020



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