Tips on how to handle and store food safely as the temperature rises.
Summer is all about spending time outdoors with friends – an evening barbie with the family after a long hot day, a picnic on the beach with the kids, a few nibbles and drinks with mates at a live sporting event. But unfortunately food is more at risk of being contaminated by bad bugs in summer than at any other time of the year. With the right conditions these bugs can multiply in your food, leading to food poisoning and unpleasant side effects. Around 200,000 NZers are affected by food-borne illnesses each year, and some of these cases can be fatal. So it pays to handle and store food correctly.
For centuries microbes have been used in food production, primarily for preserving food, and are responsible for many popular foodstuffs such as cheese, yoghurt, bread and fermented foods. In recent years, beneficial bacteria known as probiotics have been deliberately added to food products such as yoghurt in an attempt to promote gut health.
But there are other microbes (bacteria, fungi, mould, parasites and viruses) that can accidentally get into food and cause food poisoning. These usually receive a helping hand from us. Imagine the number of microbes being transferred to your hands as you go about your daily business: opening door handles, using public transport, touching money as we pay our bills and typing on computer keyboards. Over the course of an average day, our hands can come into contact with more than 1000 different surfaces, and we may forget to wash our hands before handling food. Food poisoning incidents can also occur when food is kept at the wrong temperature, or incorrectly reheated, or it may have been subjected to cross-contamination (from mixing raw and cooked foods). All up, these inappropriate handling and storing methods can lead to more than 200 known diseases that can be transmitted through food.
Sussing out the symptoms
The symptoms of food poisoning can vary from mild to severe, and can occur immediately after eating or hours later. They can last anywhere from 24 hours to five days.
When you have food poisoning, you will probably experience one or more of these symptoms: vomiting, nausea, headaches, diarrhoea and stomach cramps. Depending on the contaminant and the severity, fever and chills, bloody stools, dehydration and nervous system damage may follow. Some food-borne pathogens such as Listeria bacteria can cause other symptoms such as miscarriage or meningitis in susceptible people. Food poisoning can also lead to other long-term illnesses and symptoms.
Food safety at home
It may come as a surprise for you, but it's estimated that around four out of 10 cases originate in the home. How could this be? Well, during the day, your pet may have run through the kitchen and contributed a few bad bugs to the microbe colony on your kitchen floor. Most of us would never contemplate eating off the floor but some of us use our washing-up cloth to wipe up floor spills also. Then if you proceed to wash your plates or wipe your chopping board with the same cloth, those bad bugs are transferred across, begin to multiply and before you know it you are racing to the toilet! Yep, food poisoning is as easy as that – and this is just one of the many ways it can happen to you and your family.
Clean cooking tips
- To keep your food hygienically clean, try to keep all utensils, equipment (including your hands!) and preparation areas squeaky clean. Make sure you thoroughly wash and dry your utensils such as chopping boards and knives, as well as surfaces, after preparing raw meat, fish and poultry.
- Always use different utensils for raw and cooked foods and wherever possible, use utensils over fingers when handling food.
- Remember to keep long hair back and remove jewellery when preparing food, and always cover cuts on your hands with a waterproof dressing or use disposable gloves.
- If foods such as poultry and stuffed or minced meat need to be defrosted, be sure to completely defrost them in the fridge or microwave before cooking. Avoid defrosting at room temperature, then sticking them into the fridge until you need them, as this encourages the growth of bad food bugs.
- Fruit and vegetables should be washed prior to cooking to remove any soil residues that can house bad bacteria.
- The way your food is cooked is as important as the way it is prepared, as inadequate cooking is a common cause of food poisoning. With most foods and especially meat, poultry and eggs, cooking is enough to kill most food-poisoning bacteria.
- Generally speaking, food should be cooked to at least 75ºC or hotter, as this temperature kills most food-poisoning bacteria. And it should be eaten promptly at a temperature above 60ºC, or it should be quickly cooled until it stops steaming, covered and stored in the fridge or freezer.
In the microwave
Microwaves are great cooking tools: they're quick and convenient. But it's important to remember that if they aren't used correctly, foods can be cooked unevenly, making them a perfect feeding ground for bacteria.
- Try to cut food into evenly-sized pieces so they all take about the same time to cook. Or you could put larger or thicker items towards the outside edge of the dish. It's also a good idea to cover the container of food with a microwave-safe lid or plastic wrap as this will help to trap in the steam, promoting more even cooking.
- Always rotate food in the microwave during cooking and follow standing time directions before checking to see whether the food is completely cooked, as food continues to cook even after the microwave has turned itself off.
- Under the right conditions, cooked food can be stored in the fridge for about two to three days. Your fridge temperature should be between 0-4ºC at all times. More foods are thrown in the fridge during the warmer months to prevent spoilage but try not to overcrowd the fridge or the temperature may rise.
- Fridge temperatures may need to be adjusted occasionally to cope with the extra foods, the constant opening and closing of the fridge door, and the higher ambient temperatures. It might be worth buying a thermometer to ensure your fridge is working at the right temperature.
- It's important to always refrigerate cooked foods separately from raw foods, especially raw meat, poultry and fish, to avoid cross-contamination.
- Keep raw food at the bottom of the fridge to avoid raw juices dripping onto other foods and contaminating them.
- Try to avoid freezing single large amounts of food: break up into smaller portions so you can defrost and use as you need. Remember to label the container (including the date) and remove as much air as you can to prevent freezer burn. And never refreeze defrosted foods.
Flies, cockroaches and other pests
During the warmer months, more eggs are hatched and more pests run free. Cockroaches, flies and mice are all common pests who carry diseases and microbes, which they transfer to every surface they touch, including us!
The best way to keep your home pest-free is to keep it scrupulously clean. If you need to use a spray, put all food away prior to using chemicals and keep it covered until the smell of chemicals disappears. Most insects will be in search of moist food and will head straight to your rubbish bin – deter them by placing all food scraps in a bin with a lid so they can't get in.
Most entry points of supermarkets start with the fruit and vegetable section, followed by refrigerated meats, milk, cheese and yoghurts. But if you think about it, it doesn't really make sense to pick up all these cold food items first because they'll just get warmer and warmer, possibly even reaching the danger zone.
Next time you do a supermarket shop, head for the non-food items first, followed by the non-refrigerated drinks and dry goods. Next head to the fruit and vegetable section, then shop for refrigerated meats, stop off at the deli counter, then pick up some ready-to-eat foods and cold beverages. Last but not least, head to the frozen foods and hot food section. When packing your trolley, try to keep cold and hot foods separate, as well as raw and cooked foods.
At the checkout, unpack your trolley the same way you loaded it, keeping cold with cold and hot with hot. Put meat, poultry and seafood in separate bags and keep cold and hot foods well away from each other when transporting them home.
Anyone selling or providing you food has a responsibility to supply you with safe food. But mistakes can happen and food can become contaminated without anyone knowing. So before you enter the store, keep these points in mind:
- Damaged packaging such as ripped bags or dented cans, and bruised or battered fruit and vegetables, and cracked eggs will spoil faster.
- Use-by or expiry dates are placed on perishable foods such as pre-prepared meals, fresh meat, poultry, seafood, dairy and pre-packaged salads and vegetables. The older the food, the more chance there is for microbes to grow and reach levels to cause us harm.
- Best-before dates are used on stable products such as canned, dried and frozen foods. You can expect the quality of the product to deteriorate (such as changes in its taste, appearance and smell) more than its safety when it reaches this date.
- Load lines in refrigerators and freezers are marked by a black line. They are used as a packing guide to make sure cold air can circulate and chill all the foods evenly. As a general rule, it's best to avoid foods piled over the load line.
- Food handlers who use one set of gloves between handling different types of foods, or share utensils between foods, are not practicing safe food handling. If they're that sloppy in your sight, image them out of sight!
Did you know the temperature inside your car can reach 30ºC and higher on those hot summer days? To limit food spoilage when travelling home, turn up the air-conditioner or wind down the windows and place packed food out of direct sunlight. Try not to leave your groceries in a hot car while you go off and run other errands. Or make it easy for yourself and store all your refrigerated and frozen foods in chiller bags – especially if your journey is longer than 30 minutes or it's a hot day.
The great outdoors
When eating outside, most foods such as salads, dips, cold barbecue chickens and antipasto platters are prepared ahead of time. These foods are already high-risk foods and need to be kept at between 0-4ºC, which is very unlikely sitting outside on the picnic table. To help reduce the likelihood of food poisoning from these risky foods, only serve small amounts. Keep the extras in the fridge (if eating at home) or in the chilly bin (if out at a picnic ground) and top up as needed.
Serving and eating outside means there's a high possibility of pesky pests diving into the uncovered salads, dips and meats, so it's always a good idea to keep all food covered when it's not being used. And if possible, keep food in the shade.
Barbecue at the local park
When heading to a local park for a barbecue, it's important to transport all meat, salads, dips and cheeses in chilly bins or chiller bags. Avoid packing just-cooked foods into the chiller bag for transport as it will raise the temperature.
The barbecue and park benches will only be as clean as the last person who used them, so always clean the barbie and eating area before use. Public barbies can also be unreliable, burning food on the outside and leaving them raw on the inside. This is an issue for high-risk foods such as chicken, hamburgers and sausages, so always check the meat has been cooked completely before diving in.
When you've finished for the day, throw out leftover foods if they haven't been kept cold. Cooked meat can be brought home for leftovers but it should reach your refrigerator within two hours of cooking.
The bottom line
Many of the food-poisoning cases that occur each year could be avoided by practicing simple habits such as washing your hands before and after food preparation, keeping foods in the appropriate conditions and away from the hot summer sun, and always washing your fruit and vegetables before using them. Remember, if in doubt, throw it out! Enjoy your summer.
The dirt on dishcloths:
Many of us tend to have a 'one rag for all purposes' approach to cleaning in the kitchen. But moisture-filled dishcloths have the potential to be the perfect breeding ground for bad bugs, and here's why:
- they sit at room temperature (danger zone for microbe growth)
- they contain food particles for fuel
- they provide moisture for microbe activity
To help keep your dishcloth safe from bad bugs, every 2-3 days soak it in bleach for a few minutes, or wash it in boiling hot water and detergent for a few minutes.
As simple as the 4 Cs:
Food safety in the home comes down to four basic principles. If you get these right, you'll keep the bad food bugs at bay:
- Clean: food preparation areas, utensils, equipment and yourself.
- Cook: raw foods and leftovers until steaming hot. Ensure minced meat, chicken and sausages are cooked thoroughly.
- Cover: all foods in the fridge, cupboard and outdoors. Separate raw and cooked foods so there is no chance of cross-contamination.
- Chill: store ready-to-eat foods between 0-4ºC. Any leftover cooked food: chill quickly and store.
Four golden rules for leftovers:
- Enforce the two-and four-hour rule: you can store the leftovers up to two hours after a meal; between two and four hours they must be consumed immediately; and if it's more than four hours after the food's been cooked, you need to throw it out!
- Cover and label: always cover and date the storage container, using the date the food was cooked on.
- Reheat to steaming hot: never eat cold leftovers.
- Keep for three days: most leftovers will keep in the fridge for about three days.