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Food hygiene

If you prepare food for yourself or others, it’s important to know the rules of safe food storage and food handling to prevent foodborne diseases.

Anyone can get food poisoning. But some people, including babies, children, older people, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to have serious symptoms. The Australian Health Department estimates 5.4 million Australians get sick annually from eating food contaminated with bacteria or viruses. Up to a third of these cases are a result of consumers mishandling food, according to the Food Safety Information Council.

Food poisoning has a range of symptoms, including diarrhoea, stomach pains, nausea and vomiting. Depending on the cause and the person affected, it can lead to gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and intestines), or more serious illness such as organ failure and even death.

What causes food poisoning?

Food poisoning is usually caused by micro-organisms (germs) such as bacteria, viruses and moulds. The spread of these germs can be prevented by good food hygiene.

The most common types of food poisoning are caused by bacteria. Bacteria multiply best in a moist environment between 5°C and 60°C known as the ’temperature danger zone’. Just a single bacterium on an item of food left out of the fridge overnight can grow into many millions of bacteria by the morning, enough to make you ill if eaten. Generally, if a food item has been left in the danger zone for less than two hours, you should refrigerate or use immediately. If it has been out for two to four hours it should be used straight away, and if it has been in the danger zone for more than four hours you should throw it out.

Storing food below 5°C prevents bacteria from multiplying, while cooking food at temperatures over 60°C will kill off any existing bacteria.

Bacteria that cause food poisoning are found in many foods, including:

  • Meat and meat products, in particular poultry, minced meat and paté
  • Seafood
  • Eggs and raw egg products, particularly mayonnaise
  • Tofu and other soy bean products
  • Fresh noodles
  • Unpasteurised milk (or milk contaminated after pasteurisation)
  • Soft and mould-ripened cheeses
  • Cooked foods, particularly foods such as fried rice and pasta which haven’t been cooled and stored properly
  • Unwashed fruit and vegetables
  • Foods that contain any of the above foods, such as sandwiches.

How you can become ill from food

Bacterial food poisoning can occur in two main ways:

  • Some bacteria release poisons called toxins, which may give you symptoms of food poisoning soon after the food is eaten.
  • Other bacteria multiply in the body first before causing symptoms. The delay between eating the contaminated food and developing symptoms is known as the incubation period. This can be a period of a few hours or up to a few days.

Tips for improving hygiene

Maintaining high levels of personal and kitchen hygiene is an effective way to stop germs from spreading and infecting your food.

  • Wash your hands and nails with hot, soapy water before handling food, between handling cooked and uncooked foods, and after going to the toilet
  • Rinse your hands well and dry them on a clean hand towel, a disposable paper towel or under a hand dryer. Wet hands tend to transfer germs more than dry hands.
  • Remember the 20/20 rule for hand washing: wash for 20 seconds then dry for 20 seconds.
  • Use different cloths for different jobs. For example, use one towel for washing up and another for cleaning surfaces. Wash the cloths regularly on the hot cycle or soak in a dilute solution of bleach.
  • Wipe down and disinfect surfaces and utensils regularly using a detergent or dilute solution of bleach – always read the safety instructions first
  • Wash up using hot, soapy water, using rubber gloves if necessary
  • Don’t handle food if you have stomach problems such as diarrhoea and vomiting, or if you’re sneezing or coughing frequently
  • Cover up cuts and sores with waterproof plasters.
  • If possible, remove rings, watches and bracelets before handling food. Germs can hide under these.

Further tips for reducing the spread of germs

Along with the spread of germs caused by poor hygiene, bacteria can spread from food that has yet to be cooked to food that has already been cooked or is going to be eaten raw.

  • Use one chopping board for preparing raw meat, poultry and seafood, and a separate board for fresh produce such as salads, fruit and vegetables
  • Always use a clean plate to serve food
  • After using a knife or other utensil on raw meat, clean it thoroughly before using it on other foods.

Storing food correctly

It’s very important that food is stored in the right place (e.g. fridge or freezer) and at the correct temperature.

  • Always check labels for guidance on where and how long to store food, particularly fresh or frozen food
  • Store fresh or frozen food in the fridge or freezer within two hours of purchase, sooner if the weather is hot
  • Put cooked food into the fridge as soon as it stops steaming. If necessary, divide leftovers into smaller portions to help food cool more quickly.
  • Use up leftovers within two days
  • Store raw food such as meat in airtight containers to prevent juices or blood dripping onto other food in the fridge
  • Defrost frozen foods in the fridge. Place them on a plate or in a container as they defrost so they don’t drip on or contaminate other foods or surfaces.
  • Don’t overfill the fridge as food may then not cool properly. If you need more room, take out items such as drinks which are less potentially hazardous. You can put these in an esky with some ice to keep them chilled.
  • Keep the fridge at less than 5°C and the freezer at less than -18°C. Consider getting a thermometer to monitor the temperature.
  • Don’t store opened tins of food in the fridge. Transfer the contents to a suitable airtight container instead.

Cooking food safely

If food isn’t cooked at a high enough temperature, bacteria can still survive. The following advice will help you to cook safely:

  • Follow the recipe or packet instructions for cooking time and temperature. If cooking using an oven, ensure the oven is pre-heated properly.
  • Food should be piping hot (steaming) before serving
  • Take special care that pork, sausages, minced meat, burgers and poultry are cooked through and aren’t pink in the middle. Use a clean skewer to pierce the meat; when cooked properly, the juices should run clear.
  • Solid pieces of meat, like lamb and beef joints and steaks, should only have germs on their outside surfaces. This means they can be cooked rare, but must be thoroughly sealed (browned) on the outside.
  • Don’t cook foods too far in advance. Keep cooked foods covered and piping hot until served.
  • When microwaving, stir food well from time to time to ensure even cooking
  • Only reheat food once and serve piping hot
  • Consider using a food thermometer to check that food is cooked to the right temperature

Special occasions

Even if you’re usually careful about food hygiene, it’s easy to slip up on special occasions such as barbecues, picnics or parties. Here are some tips on how to keep food safe so these occasions stay special for the right reasons.

  • Don’t leave party foods that normally need to be refrigerated at room temperature for hours. Serve individual portions and keep leftovers stored in the fridge.
  • Keep all serving bowls covered until the last minute
  • When preparing a picnic, take the food out of the fridge at the last minute and use a cool bag to keep it chilled and covered until you eat. Consider taking antiseptic hand wipes. Wash fruit and salad items before you leave and store them in a clean, dry container for transport.
  • For barbecues, only start cooking when the charcoals are glowing red with a layer of grey ash and move the food around the grill. Always check that food is cooked through. Food which is charred on the outside might not be cooked on the inside. Serve food straight away or keep it in a hot oven until you’re ready to eat.
  • Consider pre-cooking poultry or sausages in the oven and then finish off on the barbecue.
  • Prevent cross-contamination by using separate cool bags, plates and utensils for raw and cooked meat.

Eating out

When eating out, it’s important to consider food hygiene. You can’t usually inspect the kitchens in restaurants, cafés or pubs, but there are certain warning signs of poor hygiene standards that you can look out for:

  • Dirty dining areas, toilets, cutlery or crockery
  • Rubbish and overflowing bins outside, which could attract vermin
  • Staff with dirty uniforms, dirty fingernails or with long hair not tied back
  • Hair or insects in food
  • Raw food and ready-to-eat food displayed together
  • Hot food that isn’t cooked through properly and cold food that is served lukewarm.

If you’re concerned about the hygiene standards of a restaurant or takeaway outlet, or you think you may have food poisoning, report the case to the environmental health service of your local council. This will help to ensure that other people don’t suffer in the same way.

Further information

The Food Safety Information Council www.foodsafety.asn.au

Sources

Food Safety Information Council (FSIC). Avoid the Temperature Danger zone. [online] Red Hill, ACT: FSIC. c2003 [accessed 11 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.foodsafety.asn.au/factsheets/temperaturedangerzon2248.cfm

Food Safety Information Council (FSIC). Food poisoning bacteria. [online] Red Hill, ACT: FSIC. c2003 [accessed 11 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.foodsafety.asn.au/factsheets/foodpoisoningbacteri2249.cfm

Food Safety Information Council (FSIC). Safe food – smart and great value. [online] Red Hill, ACT: FSIC. c2003 [accessed 11 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.foodsafety.asn.au/factsheets/australianfoodsafety4501.cfm

Simon C, Everitt H, Kendrick T. Oxford Handbook of General Practice. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007:452.

World Health Organization (WHO). Five keys to safer food. [online] Geneva, Switzerland: WHO. c2010 [last updated 30 Sept 2009, accessed 18 Apr 2008] Available from: http://www.who.int/foodsafety/consumer/5keys/en/

Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

Last published 31 October 2010