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Greater vigilance needed in food preparation
Greater vigilance needed in food preparation

With more families eating fresher, rawer and less-processed food to maintain nutrition, it is vital they crack down on hygiene and storage and are aware of the food poisoning traps that come with a new healthy diet, according to a food safety expert.

Juliana Madden, the Food Safety Information Council's executive director, said that kicking the "cooking food within an inch of its life" habit of past generations and turning to salads, stir-fry and sushi had been a positive step but it required greater vigilance in preparation.

The trade-off had been that fewer foods were now subjected to prolonged heat above 60C that would kill bacterial and other contamination.

At the same time more raw food was being eaten, the Australian population was ageing, making it more prone to food poisoning, the food supply was being globalised and home cooks were becoming more adventurous, trying unfamiliar recipes from different ethnic groups.

Also "scary" mutations had occurred in overseas food products, such as with the German bean sprouts outbreak with deadly E.coli, striking primarily women aged 25 to 40, who had eaten the food to improve their health. Twenty-nine were killed and 3000 fell ill.

"There are issues we need to be aware of if we are not eating and cooking in the 'traditional manner' where food was usually cooked at a fairly high temperature for a long time," Ms Madden said.

"You can be sloppy peeling the carrots if you are going to bake them, but if you are going to stir fry or have salads then you have to be a lot more careful because that little bit of dirt on the outside can still be there and can contain all sorts of things but particularly E.coli, which is one of the big ones and is just hideously awful.

"Health-food eaters, particularly vegetarians, tend to think they are very safe - that it is all that awful chicken, eggs and beef - but the major food poisoning outbreaks overseas in the past couple of years have included tomatoes, baby spinach and rockmelon and the German bean sprouts with E.coli

"The German bean sprouts outbreak was so unfortunate because it was a perfect storm. Those sprouts had actually been treated as properly as they could have been in regards to the regulations but there were two mutations - one made the E.coli a lot more toxic and the other made the E.coli a lot stickier and therefore difficult to wash off."

If serious mistakes were made in production, handling and preparation, vegetables could be just as lethal as meat, eggs and dairy and families needed to be fully informed on food safety and hygiene.

"For the vulnerable populations - those aged over 60, under seven, with suppressed immune systems, or pregnant - you still have to be scrupulous with your hand washing, with washing the food and avoiding cross contamination," Ms Madden said.

"And it's not just flipping the cutting board over, it's actually washing and drying it and making sure that the cutting board is in good condition because bugs love damp cracks. Also using a scrubbing brush or a nail brush on fingers so that as you pull that chicken apart and then get out the lettuce, you still don't have pieces of chicken left around your nails.

"If you are not cooking things, you also have to be very careful about where they are stored in the fridge.

"If you have defrosting chicken on a plate above that watermelon and it spills over, just the action of the knife being dragged through the watermelon could spread campylobacter and salmonella through it.

"Food safety is often about risk management, it's just like speeding. Most of us have gone over the speed limit from time to time, but there will be the one time you do it when things go terribly bad.

"Real food poisoning can be absolutely lethal or it can create a situation where you have a long-term condition such as Reiter's Syndrome, a type of arthritis, acute renal failure or Guillain-Barre syndrome, an auto-immune disease causing paralysis. And because food poisoning often includes vomiting and diarrhoea, it can cause massive dehydration which can lead to other organ damage."

In Australia, food poisoning results, on average, in 120 deaths, 1.2 million visits to doctors, 300,000 prescriptions for antibiotics, and 2.1 million days of lost work each year, according to the council.

The estimated annual cost is $1.25 billion.

The Food Safety Information Council is a non-profit body supported by the Department of Health and Ageing, State and Territory health and food safety agencies, local government, and leading professional, industry and community organisations. See foodsafety.asn.au.

How to make and keep your food fit to eat:

Scrub melons. Melons such as rockmelon need to be scrubbed before being cut because the rough skin has the potential to trap and hold bacteria-containing dirt, warned Food Safety Information Council executive director Juliana Madden. "The problem is when you handle it to peel it, whatever is on the outside gets on your hands. Then as you handle the flesh, you are transferring it."

Rinse all fruit and use a clean knife to cut it. WA Health Department food unit acting manager Sophie Williamson said it had investigated cases of pre-cut and wrapped fruit sold in WA stores thought to have been contaminated by bacteria present on the fruit skin or knife used to cut it.

Always wash pre-washed green vegetables. Despite what the label advises, these must always be washed again at home to reduce the risk of food poisoning from bacteria such as listeria, warned Ms Williamson. "People often assume they are already ready to serve," she said. "But you still need to rinse with water and use hands to get the water through all the leaves."

Sushi. Rethink taking this in a lunch box to work or school, if there is not a fridge to store it below 5C. "The nature of the raw and cooked products being together, and raw fish can potentially harbour bacteria and viruses," Ms Williamson said. Other foods eaten for lunch, including salad, should be kept cool with an ice block.

Bean sprouts. A high-risk food that must be washed thoroughly, Ms Williamson said. But in recent years, WA had not had any food poisoning cases associated with them. (public.health.wa.gov.au)

Cross contamination. One in 10 Australians still wrongly thought it was OK to just wipe a chopping board and knife rather than wash with soap and dry it between chopping meat or chicken and preparing salad, according to a Food Safety Information Council data based on a telephone survey. Ideally, separate cutting boards, knives and utensils should be used for each type of food.

Rice. Can be a high risk. If kept for more than two days a natural bacteria present in the rice can produces vomit-inducing toxins (public.health.wa.gov.au)

Chicken. Still not enough families were ensuring it was cooked until the pink in the middle disappeared and the liquid clear, warned Ms Williamson. (public.health.wa.gov.au)

Store well. Keep hot food hot (above 60C) and cold food cold (below 5C). Throw away any cooked and perishable food that is left out of refrigeration for more than four hours.

Eat fresh. Consider buying less and shopping every three days.