Contrary to common belief, food poisoning is often not due to some “dodgy curry” or prawn cocktail in a restaurant but raw meat contamination in your own home kitchen. Read on to find out about the simple precautions you can take to keep your family safe.
Food poisoning: the facts
Food poisoning isn’t just annoying and unpleasant – it can have serious, even fatal consequences in some cases. According to the BBC, there are over 9 million cases of gastroenteritis in England each year and many of these cases are due to food poisoning, where one of the most common culprits is raw meat. In many cases, the contamination comes not from restaurants and other food vendors outside but from poor hygiene practices or simple mistakes in our own kitchens.
Raw or undercooked meat and poultry are some of the most common offenders in food poisoning as they frequently carry bacteria that can cause serious illness, such as Campylobacter jejuni, E. coli O157:H7, L. monocytogenes and Salmonella. Infection by such bacteria can cause symptoms like diarrhoea, abdominal pain and cramps, nausea, vomiting and dehydration. In severe cases or with the immune compromised, the very old or the very young, hospitalisation may even be required and if treatment is not given, can even be fatal.
A case of food poisoning is not necessarily a reflection of the state of hygiene of your home, kitchen or fridge. Even the cleanest house can lead to food poisoning. How? Because bacteria can multiply rapidly in many every day situations – for example, even food that has been cooked will quickly develop bacteria if it is left out for more than 2 hours at room temperature. This bacteria will be undetected because it will not necessarily produce a bad odour or change the colour or texture of the food. Putting the food in the fridge or freezer simply slows the growth of the bacteria but does not destroy them – they will be reactivated when the food thaws, unless it is thoroughly cooked again to destroy them.
However, food poisoning is very preventable, as long as a few simple precautions are followed – such as maintaining the right cooking temperatures and preventing cross-contamination.
Cross-contamination is probably the most common cause of food poisoning from raw meat. It occurs when raw/uncooked food comes into contact with food that is ready to be eaten. This can happen easily in any kitchen. For example, if juices from a package of raw mince leaks out onto a package of processed ham slices below, it will contaminate the latter and cause food poisoning when it is subsequently used to make a sandwich.
Here are some tips to avoid cross-contamination:
- No matter how fresh, all raw meat and its juices should be assumed to be carrying bacteria. Therefore always wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw meat – before touching anything else! Otherwise the bacteria from the raw meat will stick to your skin and then transfer to any eating utensils, plates, napkins, towels that you touch.
- When cooking raw meat (e.g.. steaks), never transfer the cooked meat back onto plates which held the raw/uncooked meats. This is a classic mistake many people make and one of the most common ways of transferring bacteria.
- Always store your raw meats on the bottom shelves of your refrigerator, as low as possible, so that there is less chance of raw meat juices dripping down onto something else, particularly fresh produce which may not be cooked before being eaten. Ideally, make sure they are in a sealed plastic bag or container.
- Use separate chopping boards and cooking utensils for raw meat – and wash them as soon as possible.
- Any marinades used for raw meats should be discarded unless it is going to be thoroughly heated and cooked as sauce.
- Be vigilant when handling raw meat on any counters – make sure that any raw meat juices are immediately mopped up with disposable paper towels and the entire area cleaned with anti-bacterial solution.
- Make sure that all meat is cooked thoroughly to the appropriate internal temperatures to ensure that all bacteria has been destroyed. A specialised meat thermometer can be purchased to help with this.
- Refrigerate any leftover cooked meat immediately; similarly marinate meat in the fridge rather than on the counter at room temperature.
- Make sure your refrigerator is not over packed – a cluttered fridge will not allow cold air to circulate properly which means food may not be maintained at the right temperature to prevent bacteria growth.
With a few simple every day precautions, it is possible to enjoy cooking and eating meat without worrying about the dangers of food-poisoning.