Clinical health information Food hygiene July 25 2019
Charmaine Yabsley Charmaine_Yabsley Health Writer

How to help prevent food poisoning.

If you’re involved in preparing food for yourself or others, it’s important to know the general rules of safe food storage and food handling to help prevent food borne 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. It’s estimated that more than 4 million Australians are affected by food poisoning every year.

If you have food poisoning you may experience 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 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 the food is eaten. 

If a food item that’s meant to be in the fridge has been left in the 'temperature danger zone' for less than two hours, refrigerate or use immediately. If it has been out for 2-4 hours it should be used straight away. And if it has been in the danger zone for more than 4 hours you should throw it out!

Storing food below 5°C helps prevent bacteria from multiplying, while cooking food at temperatures over 60°C is likely to kill most existing bacteria.

Bacteria that cause food poisoning can be 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 meals 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

Some micro-organisms release poisons called toxins, which may give you symptoms of food poisoning soon after the food is eaten.

Other bacteria may 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.

Keep an eye on your food hygiene habits

Maintaining high levels of personal and kitchen hygiene is an effective way to stop micro-organisms 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.
  • Here’s a handy 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 thoroughly, preferably in hot water and/or using a disinfectant or detergent.
  • Wipe down and disinfect surfaces and utensils regularly using a detergent or disinfectant – always read the safety instructions first.
  • Wash up using hot, soapy water, wearing 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 immediately, preferably in a bright colour (such as blue).
  • If possible, remove rings, watches and bracelets before handling food. Germs can hide in the gap between these and your skin.

Help reduce the spread of bacteria

Along with the spread of micro-organisms 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 on packaged foods 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 buying it, 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.
  • Refrigerate leftovers promptly and eat, freeze, or discard 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, consider transferring less perishable items such as bottled drinks 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.
  • Don’t store opened tins of food in the fridge. Transfer the contents to an airtight container instead.

Cooking food safely

Some micro-organisms can still survive if food hasn't been cooked properly at a high enough temperature. To help protecting yourself against illness-causing micro-organisms:

  • Follow the recipe or packet instructions for cooking time and temperature. If you're 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; the juices should run clear if cooked properly.
  • Solid pieces of meat, like lamb and beef joints and steaks, should only have remaining micro-organisms on their outside surfaces. This means they can be rare on the inside, but must be thoroughly cooked and sealed (sometimes known as ‘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.

Tips for food preparation and cooking on 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 out of the fridge for more than 2 hours, less if it’s a hot day. 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 using antibacterial hand wipes or gel to clean hands before eating. 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 ready to eat.
  • Consider pre-cooking poultry or sausages in the oven and then finish off on the barbecue to ensure they’re cooked thoroughly.
  • Prevent cross-contamination by using separate cool bags, plates, and utensils for raw and cooked meat.

Eating out

When eating out, it’s still important to consider food hygiene. While you likely can't inspect the kitchen, look out for certain warning signs that may indicate poor hygiene standards:

  • 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/or 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 can help reduce the potential risk of food poisoning for other people.

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Charmaine Yabsley Charmaine_Yabsley Health Writer Charmaine Yabsley is a freelance health writer who contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers.