What is it?
Food poisoning is a loose term applied to any disease carried by food. Sometimes it is caused by the presence of disease-producing bacteria and sometimes by the toxins they produce.
The potential for food-borne disease has never been greater, if only because we all rely so much on massive, centralized food production, processing and distribution. Any contamination along the chain could involve hundreds or even thousands of individuals, whereas food contaminated in the home affects only the members of the household.
Although we all assume food to be safe it does not take much to make it unsafe and then for it to cause disease. The commonest food poisoning organisms are salmonella, staphylococcus, viruses such as hepatitis, and tapeworms. Of course, food can also be contaminated by chemicals and poisons but these are less common.
Most people who eat contaminated or infected food will simply become ill with diarrhea and vomiting but a small proportion become seriously ill and even die. Food poisoning causes large numbers of deaths around the world and thousands a year even in sophisticated westernized countries.
What causes it?
• Poor personal hygiene.
• Sloppiness in the kitchen and other food preparation areas.
• Faulty storage of food.
• The prevention of food poisoning starts with good personal hygiene. Before doing anything with food wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. Wash your hands after going to the lavatory, using a nailbrush to scrub both hands and nails thoroughly. Never wash your hands in a sink used for food preparation. Make sure your overall or apron is clean. Keep your fingernails short and clean. If you work in a commercial food-preparation area wear a hat or hair net if you have lots of hair.
Never comb your hair in the kitchen; don’t pick your nose and handle food; don’t smoke while preparing food; and don’t cough or spit over food.
If ever you cut or burn yourself make sure the wound is covered at once and then kept covered with a waterproof dressing or a plastic finger-stall.
If you are personally ill, and especially if you have any diarrheal illness, don’t prepare food for others. This is especially important if you work with food that is eaten by the general public.
Don’t handle food more than you absolutely have to. Never dip your fingers into things to taste them. Keep all the utensils and the surfaces you use really clean. Wipe up spills as soon as they occur because germs breed quickly in a warm kitchen. Keep scraps in bins with lids so that flies can’t get to them and germs can’t get out.
Use really hot water for washing up. Use a detergent for greasy things and then be sure to rinse off the bubbles thoroughly. Using properly hot water also means that things will dry quickly which is more hygienic.
Once you have cooked food allow it to cool and then always keep it in a refrigerator. Be sure especially never to leave meat out in the open – it is a breeding ground for germs. Never store cooked meat alongside raw meat in the fridge. If this is unavoidable ensure that the cooked meat is totally covered. By and large try to cook only as much food as you will eat at that meal unless you are pre-cooking deliberately to freeze some for later. Subsequent reheating of most foods, especially meats, needs to be as thorough as the first cooking.
Poultry is a potent source of food poisoning. Always thaw frozen birds properly before cooking. A large turkey can take forty-eight hours to thaw out completely. Egg products, including custards, artificial creams, fillings and trifles, are especially prone to bacterial growths, so be especially careful with these. Ice cream should be used at once and if there is too much for one meal put the rest back in the freezer immediately. Ice cream that has gone liquid and been refrozen is a dangerous source of food poisoning.
Store food in a refrigerator or chiller cabinet to keep flies off it during the warm months. Empty dustbins regularly and keep them clean so that they don’t breed maggots and flies. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold!