Not many of us get through life without a few incidents of tummy trouble. For most people it is an annoying inconvenience, but sometimes it can become a serious illness. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention every year 128,000 Americans are hospitalized and 3,000 die from food-borne diseases. So what practical steps can you take to reduce the risk?
Stop the Crossover
Some surfaces will inevitably have bacteria and pathogens on them. The important thing is to stop the food coming into contact with them.
Make sure that your surfaces are clean before, during and after food preparation. Chopping boards can easily harbor bacteria, especially those which have a slightly absorbent surface, like wood, so these need special attention. Dispose of any cracked plates and bowls.
Can you trust the ‘five-second rule’ for dropped food? On this, and for a host of other useful and up-to-date info about food poisoning, have a look at the unsafefoods.com website. The answer, briefly: It depends!
Keep It Cool
Keeping stuff cool is the best way to stop bugs developing in your food. Your refrigerator should be at 40 degrees or lower, your freezer at 0 degrees or lower.
Organize your refrigerator well. Make sure there is a physical barrier between your raw and your ready-to-eat foods, storing the raw food at the bottom.
Leftover food should be put in the refrigerator as soon as it has cooled to room temperature.
When defrosting food place it in the refrigerator, not into a warm environment. It takes longer, but it keeps the microbes at bay. After defrosting, never re-freeze.
Heat It Up
To be on the safe side all animal products should be thoroughly cooked unless they are pasteurized. Check the expiry dates for meat, dairy, and egg products before you use them.
Reheated leftovers should be cooked to the same temperature as the original cooking.
Wash, Wash, Wash
Wash your hands with antibacterial soap before preparing food, and after handling any raw meat. Wash all your utensils and all your work surfaces carefully after cooking.
If you have pets, don’t forget to clean your hands after touching them, especially before preparing food. The same goes, of course, for when you change infants’ diapers.
Wash vegetables, salads, and fruit in running water before eating. Alfalfa and other sprouts have been associated with salmonella and other risks—this is because the warm humid conditions that are needed to grow them are ideal for the bacteria to multiply. They need very thorough washing if you are going to eat them raw.
If you are suffering from a stomach upset yourself, especially if you have diarrhea or vomiting, it is best if you can avoid preparing food for others at all.
Four Golden Rules
All the above advice is summarized in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention easily remembered four key steps: clean, separate, cook, chill. If you keep these four principles in mind, you will not go far wrong in avoiding food poisoning in your home.
At Risk Groups
For some groups, extra precautions need to be taken. These are the very young, the elderly, those with immunity deficiency issues, and pregnant women.
Fruit juices should also be drunk only if they have been pasteurized or heat treated.
If possible, breastfeeding will protect babies against much of the risk of food-related infections. If this is not possible, all baby feeding equipment must be properly sterilized before use. Convenient systems to do this in the microwave are available.
Enjoying Food Safely
There is an old adage that ‘we must all eat a peck of dirt before we die’ and there is a theory that too little exposure to infection is damaging to our immune systems. Your attitude to food hygiene will depend largely upon your experience and our overall health—someone who has had a serious attack of dysentery is not going to want to repeat the experience. Sensible precautions to reduce the risk are easy to take, and without becoming obsessive good habits will keep the worst bugs at bay.
Erin Thompson is training to be a nutritionist. She enjoys sharing her research and findings online. Her articles mainly focus on health and family issues.