Food poisoning can be avoided with good hygiene and knowledge of food preparation writes Meera Murugesan
A HILARIOUS scene from the Bollywood movie
Delhi Belly always comes to mind when food poisoning is mentioned.
In one of the scenes, a character hankers after some spicy fried chicken being sold at a dinghy looking food stall (complete with sweaty, scruffy food handler who’s scratching himself in unmentionable places) and pays a heavy price for his lack of wisdom.
Eating a meal should always end on a pleasant note, not with toilet woes.
However, on some occasions, we may experience the tell-tale signs that something didn’t go down well.
Nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting and even fever or flu like symptoms are all signs that your meal was off and food poisoning has kicked in.
Also called foodborne illness, food poisoning is caused by consuming contaminated food and the most common contaminants are bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi, says Wong Wen Yin, chief dietitian and senior manager of the dietetic and food service department at Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur.
Contamination can also occur from other sources such as chemical hazards (sanitiser, toxic metals, detergents, pesticides and herbicides) or physical hazards (hair, metal staples, finger nails and paper) getting into food.
Wong says food also becomes unsafe when there is time temperature abuse, cross contamination during food preparation or being handled by someone with poor personal hygiene.
“Time temperature abuse means food was not cooked thoroughly to a safe internal temperature to kill bacteria or it was left to stay out too long at room temperature.”
Cross contamination means using the same equipment or utensils to prepare raw and cooked food with bacteria from raw food getting transferred to the cooked ones.
One of the biggest causes of food poisoning remains the lack of personal hygiene among food handlers, whether at home or in commercial eateries.
Simple things such as not washing your hands before touching food allow bacteria to spread, especially if you have just used the toilet, touched or scratched a wound or body part, handled raw meat, household chemicals or even pets.
Wong says it’s also crucial for those preparing meals to ensure that ingredients used have not expired.
How many of us do a routine check on our pantry to ensure our sauces, marinades and spices are still fresh and ready to use?
Very often, we can’t even remember when we purchased certain items, especially if we don’t use them on a daily basis, so a regular audit of the kitchen cupboard is crucial.
While most of us assume that food kept in the refrigerator is safe, Wong says improperly-stored food, even in the refrigerator, can result in food poisoning.
When food is not properly covered or improperly placed in the refrigerator, cross contamination can happen.
When cooked or ready-to-eat food is uncovered and gets in contact with high risk food such as raw meat, bacteria from the meat can be transferred to cooked food, resulting in food poisoning.
But how long can we safely eat leftovers in the fridge?
Wong says this depends on many factors including the condition and freshness of the food when it was first placed in the refrigerator and the duration of time it spent in the “temperature danger zone” of between 5-60 degrees Celsius (where bacteria grows rapidly) prior to being placed inside the fridge.
How food is prepared, whether it is cooked at the correct temperature in a clean cooking area with clean utensils and containers, whether it is properly stored and handled also matter as does the temperature inside the fridge.
A fridge should have the desired cold holding temperature of between 0-4° Celsius. Food should also be stored in a manner that allows proper cold air circulation in the fridge.
“Generally, most leftovers in the fridge can be consumed safety within three to four days but it is advisable to reheat food to 74°C before consumption.”
THE RISKY ONES
Some types of food are more likely to cause food poisoning as they are more at risk of bacterial growth, especially when not cooked to certain temperatures or not stored or handled properly.
These include raw or undercooked poultry which contains contaminants such as campylobacter, salmonella or clostridium perfringens which cause food poisoning.
Wong says poultry should always be cooked thoroughly and kept out of the temperature danger zone that allows bacterial growth.
Certain fish may also contain toxins such as histamine and ciguatoxin which can cause foodborne illness.
“Histamine contributes to scombroid poisoning and is commonly linked to many species of fish such as mackerel, tuna, bonito and sardines. And histamine level is likely to increase when fish is not chilled after capture or has not been stored at the correct temperature.”
Saxitoxin, brevetoxin and domoic acid, meanwhile, are common shellfish toxins that cause foodborne illness. These toxins are found in clams, oysters, mussels and scallops.
As toxins are not removed by cooking, the best way to minimise risk is to purchase from approved and reputable suppliers.
Raw oysters, while an expensive delicacy, may put consumers at risk for infections such as vibrosis.
Vibrio bacteria, present naturally in water, can contaminate oysters.
It is important to note that cooking is the only way to kill vibrio bacteria. Both lemon juice and alcohol do not kill them.
Eggs, a daily staple in many homes, can be contaminated with salmonella bacteria.
Contamination can occur before the shells are even formed or when eggs are laid so it’s not advisable to consume raw and undercooked eggs.
“Eggs are safe when they are cooked and handled properly. Precautionary steps to avoid egg-related food poisoning include purchasing pasteurised eggs and using pasteurised eggs to prepare products that require raw eggs such as mayonnaise.”
Keep eggs in the refrigerator and never use any egg which is cracked.
As for vegetables, bacteria like E.coli may be present on soil traces left on vegetables and can be harmful, especially if the greens are eaten raw.
Food poisoning is also likely to happen when vegetables are not washed properly or rinsed in unclean water, handled by sick people who did not wash their hands properly or if cross contamination occurs through dirty utensils or cutting boards.
PRECAUTIONARY measures start right from purchasing and continue at every stage of food preparation, cooking, handling and storage.
Always check expiry dates and buy food from reputable retailers who have a known record of safe food handling.
Do not buy any product which has damaged packaging or if the can is rusty, dented or bulging.
When buying raw meat or poultry, never choose ones with packaging that is torn and leaking.
Place raw meat/seafood separately from other foodstuff in the shopping trolley to avoid cross contamination between raw and ready-to-eat food.
Use an insulated bag with ice to transport refrigerated and frozen items so they will remain cold.
Ensure food is stored in a clean refrigerator and freezer.
Avoid over-crowding and ensure there is good cold air circulation.
Cover or seal food before storage.
Always store raw food, below cooked food and ready-to-eat food.
Never thaw food at room temperature. Thaw meat or poultry safely in the refrigerator.
Do not cross contaminate by using the same chopping board to cut raw meat and ready-to-eat food such as salad, sandwiches and fruit.
Ensure hands are washed properly before food preparation.
Wash fruit and vegetables under running water to eliminate dirt and germs on the surface. Cut off bruised or damage parts.
Cook potentially hazardous food (meat, poultry) to the required minimum internal temperature of 74°C.
Use clean serveware and utensils for serving.
Discard cooked leftovers which have been left at room temperature for more than two hours.
THERE are simple ways to determine whether food is fresh at every meal. Here are some tips:
Inspect for changes in colour. For example, the most common spoilage sign on bread is green or black mould. Discolouration is often a sign that food has gone bad.
A foul or unnatural odour is never a good sign. For example, if milk smells sours and appears to be chunky and lumpy, it has gone bad.
A sticky, slimy texture is also an indication of food gone bad or bacteria growing inside food (such as meat and vegetables). Fruit, for example, is not safe to consume if it has become mushy or grainy with wrinkly and peeling skin, has extreme discolouration or has a foul odour.