Nearly everyone gets food poisoning at least once in his or her lifetime. Here are 20 handy tips to avoid and prevent food poisoning. These tips refer to households, but can also be used in any food-handling, processing and packaging enterprise.
You can find the germs that cause food poisoning are all around us. It is impossible to avoid these germs completely, but you can limit the risk of getting food poisoning or worse, be the cause of food poisoning in other people.
1. Wash Your Hands
Personal hygiene is an excellent starting point to reduce or even eliminate the risk of food poisoning.
A simple thing such as washing your hands can save you and others from an embarrassing spell of diarrhoea and discomfort caused by food poisoning. Your hands are out there constantly touching, scratching, rubbing and picking up. They carry germs and cross-contaminate.
Using water and soap will remove physical dirt as well as most of the germs. It is important to scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
Always wash your hands;
- before and after handling food, especially raw foods like meat;
- after blowing your nose, sneezing and coughing;
- after touching animals;
- after going to the toilet and
- after touching anything that could be contaminated.
2. Dry Your Hands
Properly drying your hands after washing them is just as important.
The best methods to dry your hands after washing:
- Air-drying is the best method, but few people have hand air dryers at home.
- Disposable paper towels are also another good option (second to air-drying).
- Cloth hand towels (the most widely used in households). Always use a clean hand towel. Dirty hand towels can carry and accumulate many germs.
We do not recommend hand towels for drying hands when you run a food-handling establishment (business), especially if everyone is going to use the same hand towel.
3. Sanitise your Hands
After washing and drying your hands, comes sanitising. Sanitising means disinfecting your hands with a commercial sanitiser/disinfectant. Water and soap mostly only removes dirt and germs (wash them down the drain), but sanitizing kills germs.
2 in 1 Hand soaps and sanitisers are very popular and you will find them in many households. It is a soap and sanitiser combined. Sanitisers should ideally contain more than 60% alcohol to be effective.
Sanitizing your hands after washing is just an extra precaution and kills any germs remaining on your hands.
It is more important to wash your hands properly than only using a sanitiser. Physical dirt and grease on your hands can limit the effectiveness of sanitisers.
Water and soap are superior to sanitisers!
If you use the stand-alone sanitiser and not the 2 in 1, remember to wash your hands again after sanitizing. You don’t want sanitiser in your food.
4. Keep Your Bodily Fluids Away From Food
Do not sneeze, cough or blow your nose over or near food. The germs contained in those will come in contact with the food.
Hot summer days and busy kitchens or food processing areas equal sweating. Especially when you run around like a headless chicken to keep your customers happy. Wipe your face and arms regularly and be careful when you peep in the stew pot. Gravity and sweat droplets forming on your brow will not be your friend when leaning forward.
If you cut yourself by accident, immediately clean, disinfect and cover the wound. A simple band-aid will not do if you are going to continue with your food preparation. You have to make the wound waterproof. You don’t want food bacteria in your wound and you do not want your blood in the food.
Discard any food that might be contaminated with blood.
If you are working in a food-handling, processing and packaging enterprise, inform your supervisor immediately to ensure the correct steps are taken.
5. Keep Your Fingernails Clean
Your fingernails can accumulate a lot of dirt and germs. They are also the most difficult to clean when washing and sanitising your hands.
It is a requirement to keep your nails short and clean when you work in a food-handling and processing organisation. Short nails are best when you work with any food in general, but I don’t think mom will get rid of her beautiful long well-maintained nails just because she needs to cook dinner.
What to do?
Make sure your nails are super clean before you work with food. Remove any access dirt underneath your nails using the sharp edge of a nail file, before you wash your hands and make sure you get rid of all the soap underneath you fingernails when rinsing. Scrubbing your nails with a nailbrush will also help.
6. Be Careful Where You Buy Your Food
It is always a good idea to do a visual and smell check before you buy, prepare and cook any food.
Not all food establishments comply with minimum food safety and hygiene requirements. Many food establishments, especially those located downtown and street vendors do not take hygiene seriously.
Although the food may be tasty and cheap, it could be prepared in a filthy kitchen. You might just end up with food poisoning and soon find yourself in hospital. It is shocking what happens in many kitchens! Cockroaches are nocturnal and normally shy, but they are running around during daylight. This only means they have become comfortable with their living arrangements.
We recommend you buy your food from establishments that embrace food hygiene. This is no guarantee that you will not get food poisoning, but the risk is much lower.
- Look for a prominently displayed Certificate of Acceptability (as per Regulation R918/R962/R638). This certificate indicates that an establishment meets at least the minimum requirements. Be concerned if you don’t see such a certificate.
- The overall cleanliness of the establishment is also a good indication of their hygiene practices.
7. Check the Expiry Date
The expiry (“sell by” and “use by”) date on products and food are there for a reason. This tells us the food may be prone to the growth of germs after the “use by” date. “Use by” dates are based on scientific tests that show how quickly harmful germs can develop in the packaged food.
Food poisoning bacteria starts the process of producing toxins that cause illness. The bacteria multiply with each day that passes and the product become more and more toxic. This makes the food unsafe for your health, even when it tastes and smell just fine.
Avoid buying expired food and dispose of any expired food you might have, as soon as possible. Keeping it in your fridge will only cross-contaminate your other food products.
It is a good habit to always check expiry dates on food products before you buy. It will save you money and your health.
8. Do a Visual and Smell Check Before You Prepare and Cook Food
Except for checking the expiry date before you prepare and cook food, you should do a general visual and smell check. Staying inside the expiry date does not necessarily mean the food is still good enough to use.
- any strange discolouration and
- funny smells.
9. Keep Your Raw and Cooked Food Separate (Especially Raw Meat)
Cooked foods go through a cooking and/or heating process that minimises or even kill bacteria and harbour fewer bacteria than raw foods. If raw food comes in contact with cooked food, you may end up re-introducing the bacteria from the raw food to the cooked food.
If this should happen, you need to re-heat the cooked food again to kill off any possible bacteria transferred from the raw food. This does not always happen and skipping this re-heating step could result in food poisoning.
It’s especially important to keep raw meat away from ready-to-eat foods, such as salad, fruit and bread. You do not normally apply a heating step to these ready-to-eat foods and any bacteria transferred from the raw meat will not be killed.
Touching raw meat and then cooked / ready to eat food without washing your hands in between is a big NO!
10. Use Separate Chopping Boards and Utensils
In addition to Tip 9, you should also use separate chopping boards for different raw foods. Do not chop your salad ingredients on the same chopping board you just used to slice your meat (unless you first wash it properly in very hot water).
This same applies to using separate utensils. Slicing into a nice fresh and washed tomato with the same bloody knife you used to cut your meat is looking for trouble. Your salad is now contaminated with whatever is in the raw meat juices.
11. Cook and Reheat Food Thoroughly
Temperatures above 65◦C kills most pathogenic (disease-causing) germs. Raw foods normally have germs, but it all depends on what type of food it is.
Germs like moisture and warm temperatures. Bacteria generally grow better in foods with a high moisture content compared to foods with low moisture content. Germs can multiply rapidly given the right conditions.
It is important to cook and reheat food thoroughly. The food should be hot on the outside and inside.
Microwaves tend to re-heat food from the outside inwards. It can happen that the food is steaming hot on the outside but still cold or lukewarm in the centre. The same goes for roasts in the oven. The centre of your roast should reach a temperature of at least 65◦C.
Make sure poultry, pork, burgers, sausages and kebabs are cooked until steaming hot, with no pink meat inside.
Freezing raw chicken reduces the levels of Campylobacter bacteria but doesn’t eliminate them. The safest way to kill all traces of Campylobacter is by cooking chicken thoroughly.
12. Quickly Cool Leftovers You Want to Store
If you have cooked food you’re not going to eat very soon, cool it as quickly as possible (within 90 minutes) and store it in the fridge or freezer. Use any leftovers from the fridge within 2 days.
13. Keep Food at Low Temperatures
It is advisable to keep perishable food products at temperatures below 5◦C or at freezing temperatures if the food is suitable for freezing. Low temperatures do not stop the growth of some bacteria but inhibit (slow down) growth, making their multiplication very slow.
Remember the more the bacteria are, the more concentrated will the toxins (poisons) be that cause illness. It is therefore important to try to minimize their multiplication.
14. Keep Hot Foods Very Hot
The bacteria that cause food poisoning thrives at temperatures between 5◦C and 60◦C. This temperature range is called the danger zone. If food sits within this zone for longer than four hours, it becomes unsafe and you need to throw it out. What a waste!
15. Do Not Leave Food Exposed for Long
Food exposed to the environment tends to attract and accumulate germs more quickly. The longer the food is exposed the higher the risk of contamination. Germs like to multiply and given the right conditions do so quickly. More germs increase the likelihood of food poisoning.
All this depend on the type of germ present in the food and the immune system of the person consuming that food.
People with weaker immune systems are more likely to get food poisoning. That is why some people get food poisoning and others don’t, even if they eat the same food prepared in the same kitchen.
16. Store Raw Meat on the Bottom Shelf of Your Fridge
Always cover raw meat and store it on the bottom shelf of the fridge. Using an airtight container for storage is even better. Meat tends to drip and you don’t want the raw meat juices coming in contact with your other food.
17. Wash Fruits and Vegetables Thoroughly
Have you ever seen the instruction “Wash before use” on packaged fruit? There is a good reason for this instruction.
Different people manually handle most fruits and vegetables before they reach the shop. Fruit and vegetables naturally have germs, but add a food handler that might be infected with germs such as Staphylococcus Aures into the mix and you might end up with food poisoning if you do not wash your fresh produce before use. Especially if you are not going to cook it. For example, produce you are going to use for your famous table salad.
You also find loose fruits and vegetables on supermarket shelves. If you are concerned about a food handler or two, you should be even more concerned about shoppers poking, touching, picking up and smelling these produce for freshness. If they are not happy with what they see, they put it back for the next person to take home. We all do it!
Germs may also come from machinery, packaging material and poor storage practices.
What about pesticides? Some (not all) fruit and vegetables may have pesticides on them.
I wish I could say it ends here, but there is one more thing. Tiny insects and worms. They like to hide in between leaves (for example lettuce and cabbage leaves). In theory, the presence of bugs indicates the absence of pesticides. This is only in theory and not guaranteed.
I know you would prefer no pesticides and no bugs, but this is not always reality.
Washing your fruits and vegetables thoroughly will get rid of most germs and other contaminants. Please don’t stop eating your favourite fruit and veggies. You need it!
PS: Don’t wash raw meat (including chicken and turkey) before cooking, as this can spread bacteria around your kitchen.
18. Clean your Fridge Regularly
Here is an interesting fact. Although we use a fridge to keep our food fresh, it can harbour many germs. Germs that cause food poisoning. You keep all sorts of things in your fridge, including raw and cooked food. The raw food (fresh vegetables, meat, eggs, etc) could already be infected with bacteria and over time the bacteria may become resistant to the cold temperatures.
Some bacteria easily grow at temperatures less than 5◦C. For example Listeria Monocytogenes. The recent Listeriosis outbreak is still fresh in our minds. Over 180 people died and nearly a 1000 hospitalised.
It is important to clean and disinfect your fridge as often as possible. This will minimize the possibility of cross-contamination and remove any existing germs.
19. Keep Your Fridge below 5◦C
Keep your fridge temperature below 5◦C and use a fridge thermometer to check it. This prevents most harmful germs from growing and multiplying.
Avoid overfilling your fridge. Restricting the airflow in your fridge can affect the overall temperature.
20. Clean the Microwave After Each Use
Microwaves are used for re-heating, cooking and defrosting food. The cooking and re-heating process might generate enough heat to kill existing germs in the microwave or found in the food you are cooking, but the defrosting function does not generate enough heat to kill germs.
Microwaves can cross-contaminate food. They are enclosed and a lot of splattering and dripping takes place.
Cleaning your microwave after each use is an excellent habit.
Avoiding and preventing food poisoning at home and in your workplace should be high on everyone’s agenda.
It all starts with;
- personal hygiene;
- where you purchase your food;
- the quality of the produce you buy,
- avoiding cross-contamination;
- understanding in what conditions germs like to multiply and
- keeping your storage areas clean.
If you are running a food handling, processing and packaging enterprise, contact us for advice. Our consultants are experts with many years of experience in food poisoning prevention.
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