Protect yourself from food poisoning so you don't end up sick at home or even the hospital.
Food poisoning is unpleasant at best and deadly at its worst. There are some important things to keep in mind to protect yourself when eating both at home and when eating out that will improve your chances of avoiding food poisoning. When at home or eating out, use these tips to help prevent you and your family and friends from getting sick.
Understand what can cause food poisoning. Food poisoning is caused by ingesting food or drink that has been contaminated with bacteria, toxins, viruses, parasites and/or chemicals. In fact, food poisoning more accurately applies to the ingestion of toxins and chemicals, whereas the bacteria, viruses and parasites are sources of infection via food. Most people, however, refer to food poisoning as covering all these possible sources.
Recognize that there are several main events that can cause food contamination:
Food growing: The use of chemicals, fertilizers, manures etc. all have the potential to contaminate food as it is being grown. Never hold an expectation that an item is washed before it leaves the farm.
Environmental factors: Bacteria, parasites etc. travel happily in the wind, float in the water, hitch lifts with dust and reside snugly in the soil. They are a part of nature's web of life and will always be a possible source of contamination if not dealt with appropriately as part of a consistent and dedicated approach to food hygiene.
Food processing: Whether in a large factory or in your own kitchen, food processing can be a major source of contamination. Areas used for processing need to be kept scrupulously clean or cross-contamination can easily occur, especially with meat products (natural bacteria residing in the intestines of animals are a major source of cross-contamination when mishandled).
Food storage: Food that is stored incorrectly, for instance an uncooked chicken thigh resting next to a bunch of grapes, can be a source of transferring bacteria and other contaminants from one food to another. This is a very tricky area because often people don't think that some foods could be a source of contamination but are unaware that cross-contamination has occurred.
Food preparation: A great deal of food contamination occurs during the preparation stage. A sick person can pass on germs, from 'flu to gastroenteritis. A chopping board used for meat that is not washed and then used for vegetables is another source of possible contamination. Unwashed hands, dirty kitchen spaces, insects and rodents in the kitchen etc. are all possible sources of food contamination.
Know what to do to prevent food contamination. Handling, storing and preparing foods are the most important areas to tackle in order to reduce the possibility of food contamination causing human illness. The other important preventive measure is paying attention to the conditions of food and food service hygiene when you eat out.
Shop with care. Even before you begin to prepare your foods, take care with how you purchase them and bring them home. Check the use-by dates on products, keep meat and poultry products in separate bags and do not let the raw flesh touch any other food products as you shop or bring them home.
Maintain the cold chain. Keep cold and frozen foods as cold as possible - wrap in newspaper or buy a small cooler bag to transport your cold and frozen foods home. When possible, buy cold product at the end of your shopping. Store all foods properly and quickly when you get back home.
Always wash your hands before and after preparing foods. Wash with hot, soapy water. Keep dish cloths and hand towels regularly cleaned.
Keep your kitchen clean. Use a mild solution of water and soap to clean your counters, cutting boards and utensils.
Use separate chopping boards for preparing raw meat and poultry. Keep these boards separate to avoid any possibility of cross-contamination of bacteria from meat to other food products. If you cannot keep separate chopping boards, make sure to clean a multi-purpose chopping board thoroughly - it should be disinfected (see bleach recipe in "Tips").
Keep foods separated. At all times, keep raw meat, raw eggs and poultry away from cooked food, fresh fruits and vegetables.
Cook foods thoroughly, especially red meat, poultry and eggs. Cooking these foods all the way through will destroy harmful germs. Consult a cookbook and use a meat thermometer if you have any doubts about how long to cook something.
Keep hot foods hot (65°C/ 149ªF) and cold foods cold (4°C/ 40ºF). You should make sure your fridge is set at a temperature of 4°C/ 40°F or less.
Reheat leftovers thoroughly before serving. Leftovers that have been reheated poorly can still contain active food pathogens. Moreover, if leftovers have gone bad, no amount of reheating will make them safe. Any signs of discoloration, sliminess, growth of mold etc. are signals to discard or compost the leftovers. Do not keep leftovers for long. Never reheat leftovers more than once and never refreeze food without changing its state! i.e. you can freeze raw food, defrost the raw food, cook the food, refreeze the cooked food, defrost/reheat the cooked food. If the reheated cooked food is left over. Throw it away or there is a very high chance of getting sick!
Store foods according to their needs. The type of storage is dependent on the type of food. Dry foods such as pasta, rice, lentils, beans, canned foods and cereals can all be kept in a cool, dry place such as a pantry or cupboards. Other foods can be trickier and care should be taken to store them in the appropriate manner:
Place frozen items in the freezer as soon as you bring them home and within 2 hours at the most.
Meat, poultry, eggs, fish, pre-prepared meals, dairy products and leftovers should always be refrigerated.
Many foods should be kept refrigerated or in a cool, dark place, such as a cellar or pantry, once opened. Read labels for storage details and instructions. If in any doubt, always err on the side of providing a cooler environment.
All foods, regardless of their storage status, should be eaten quickly and within their use-by dates. Even spices and dried herbs lose their beneficial properties and flavors if kept too long and many items can become harmful if stored beyond their use-by date.
Protect your food from insects and animals. This is also important during preparation and serving.
Be extra careful during warmer weather. Food contamination from bacterial causes occurs much faster in warmer weather. If you are eating outdoors, ensure that everyone eats the food quickly and that leftovers are brought back inside within an hour to be stored in the cool again.
Be very careful with raw fish and meat.Sushi, steak tartare etc. are delicacies that can delight if properly prepared. However, the highest level of hygiene must be ensured for these items. Only eat these items at reputable places! Avoid sushi, raw clams and similar foods that are sitting in a buffet table if you don't know how long they have been without proper refrigeration. If you make them at home, use the best and freshest ingredients, follow all hygienic practices outlined here and eat immediately upon creation. Note that fresh doesn't necessarily mean "straight from the animal," as deep frozen sushi fish is substantially safer than fresh-killed fish, since the deep freezing kills parasite spores. It is advisable to take classes in making sushi or French cooking if you are a novice at making such foods. Raw flesh foods are extremely difficult to prepare properly and safely, so if in doubt, don't make them yourself. Never keep raw flesh foods as leftovers.
Don't eat it if you have any doubts. This is the safest option - trust your senses. If it looks unusual and smells bad, leave it. If there are other indicators that worry you, leave it.
Don't eat raw shellfish. Eating raw shellfish is an extraordinary risk, although raw clams and oysters are considered a delicacy. There are several risk factors particular to shellfish that make it much more dangerous than raw fish. Red tide and other naturally occurring microbial outbreaks can contaminate shellfish, which build up toxins in their flesh. Risk of hepatitis is high. Alcoholics and persons with liver damage are particularly at risk. If you do eat raw shell fish, make sure it's alive when you purchase it. This means that mussels, clams and oysters will have closed shells, or the shells close when tapped. If the shell is open, throw it away.
Pay extra attention to some other signals when eating out:
Check the premises. The hygiene standard should be fairly self-evident.
Be careful with buffet-style food. Check to see that hot food is being kept hot and not just lukewarm. Rice can be a source of food contamination if it has been left out for too long. Salads are also a possible problem if they are not fresh.
Be careful with some salad dressings, Mayonnaise, Hollandaise, Bearnaise and other sauces which contain raw egg, as well as meringue.
Trust your senses as described above. Above all, if after following through with these precautions the food doesn't taste right or makes you nauseous, stop eating and get it out of your mouth. Your gut always knows.
Know the possible symptoms that indicate food poisoning:
Sudden tiredness, loss of energy and/or a desire to sleep
Many restaurants have a minimal temperature for cooking meat and poultry. For example, in the US, beef, pork, veal or lamb must have a minimum temperature of 145ºF; turkey and chicken at 165ºF; fish at 145ºF and eggs at 165ºF. In the UK, hot food is cooked to 72ºC and above.
It can help to mark your chopping boards "Meat Only", "Veggies Only", "Bread Only" etc. It is not just for the benefit of the regular cook(s) but for anyone else who happens to want to help out in the kitchen.
Bleach recipe for chopping boards: Mix 1 teaspoon (5 ml) bleach per 34 fl oz (1 liter) of water. Wash the board in hot, soapy water first and then disinfect the board in the bleach solution.
If you do consume unpasteurized products, either because you believe that they are safe or you produce some yourself, ensure that they come from a reputable source, are properly stored and are consumed very quickly. For instance, if you milk your own cow, maintain very high hygiene standards during the entire milking process, from the method used for feeding and lodging the cow to the method used for milking, as well as sterilization of milking equipment and milk containers.
You can get severely sick from food poisoning. Seek medical assistance immediately if you suspect that you have food poisoning.
Contrary to popular belief, wooden cutting boards are not more harmful than plastic boards. While the wood may hold bacteria in the little cracks, research has shown that bacteria does not multiply in wood, and are more prone to dying out, than in plastic. Whatever type of board that you use, remember to keep it clean.
Just because an item is marked "organic" or "naturally grown" doesn't mean you should place it into your mouth without a home-wash first. These labels don't mean "clean"! They are just a method of growing or a marketing message and you must still wash and scrub the items as per normal.
At the company picnic, always avoid the mayo-based salads that have not been refrigerated: potato salad, egg salad, pasta salad.
While clean salads are an excellent source of vitamins and fiber, salad bars are one of the most common sources of food poisoning. Packing your own carefully-washed salad is a safer alternative.