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What is food safety and why is it important?

Abbey Stanford profile photo
Specialist Health Editor at Bupa UK
18 March 2021

If you’ve ever had food poisoning, you’ll know just how nasty it can be. From a mild tummy upset to severe gastroenteritis, and potentially something even more serious, it can be tough for anyone to deal with.

Food poisoning isn’t just something to worry about if you’re travelling or eating out. Many people get ill from the food they eat at home. Storing, preparing or cooking food in the wrong way can lead to growth or spread of the germs that cause illness.

Here are some of my top tips on food safety.

Cleaning

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after handling any food.
  • Keep your work surfaces, chopping boards and utensils clean, washing them thoroughly in hot water or a dishwasher between tasks and after use.
  • Wash or change your tea towels and dishcloths regularly – they can hold on to bacteria, especially if they're damp.

Storing food

  • Check labels for advice on how to store food items. Bread, dry foods, tins and jars are usually best stored somewhere cool and dry (eg a cupboard). Fresh foods like meat, dairy and ready meals need to be kept in a fridge or freezer.
  • Keep your fridge at 5°C or below, and your freezer colder than –18°C.
  • Keep raw meat and seafood separate from other foods in airtight containers at the bottom of the fridge.
  • Any fresh foods need to be put in the fridge or freezer within two hours – whether that’s after shopping or cooking. Allow leftovers to cool to room temperature (for no more than two hours) first.
  • You can keep leftovers for up to two days in the fridge.
  • Don’t keep leftover rice for longer than 24 hours, and only reheat it once.
  • Don’t refreeze defrosted foods, unless you cook it first.

Preparing food

  • Don’t eat or freeze any foods that have passed their use-by date, even if it looks or smells fine. Best-before dates are a bit more flexible – you can eat food after this date, but the quality might be reduced, rather than it being unsafe.
  • Only take chilled foods out of the fridge when you’re ready to eat or cook them.
  • Don’t defrost frozen foods at room temperature, as bacteria can start to grow as it defrosts. Instead, defrost in the fridge or use a microwave on the defrost setting.
  • There’s no need to wash raw meat, such as chicken. This is likely to just spread any harmful bacteria onto worktops, utensils or yourself.
  • Do wash fruit and vegetables with fresh water before you eat them.
  • Use separate chopping boards and utensils to prepare raw meat or fish, and clean them well after each use.

Cooking food

  • Follow the instructions on packaging for cooking time and temperature. Remember to preheat your oven; if you don’t, this will affect cooking time.
  • 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. It usually should be over 70°C for at least two minutes – but this will depend on what you’re cooking.
  • Make sure meat is cooked 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 in the thickest part; if it’s cooked properly, the juices will run clear.
  • Always reheat pre-cooked food thoroughly so it’s steaming hot all the way through.

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Abbey Stanford profile photo
Abbey Stanford (she/her)
Specialist Health Editor at Bupa UK

    • Food safety. British Dietetic Association. www.bda.uk.com, published 19 August 2019
    • Cleaning. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, last updated 18 May 2020
    • Chilling. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, last updated 24 December 2020
    • Avoiding cross-contamination. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, last updated 18 December 2017
    • Cooking food. Food Standards Scotland. www.foodstandards.gov.scot, accessed 10 March 2021
    • Cold food storage. FoodSafety.gov. www.foodsafety.gov, last reviewed 28 January 2021
    • Home food fact checker. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, last updated 18 February 2021
    • Best before and use-by dates. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, last updated 24 December 2020
    • Cooking your food. Food Standards Agency. www.food.gov.uk, last updated 29 June 2018

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