As parents across Australia wave farewell to their children making their way into the big wide world of higher education, it’s as good a time as any to remind everyone of the importance of food safety.
That’s because these guys may still be learning how to maintain a clean and safe food environment.
But anyone who has lived in a share house (or really any house without a live-in cleaner) can tell you that this isn’t an easy task.
Just in time for the start of the academic year, The Food Safety Information Council have provided five key instructions for to help protect all Australians against food poisoning.
And for anyone who doubts the effectiveness or relevance of these guidelines, we’re here to explain the science behind it all.
Wash hands with soap and running water before handling food, wash the dishes regularly and keep the kitchen clean.
I hate to tell you this, but we’re all absolutely covered in bacteria.
It’s a popular myth that our bodies host ten times as many bacterial cells as human ones – but the statistics are still pretty staggering. As explained in the myth-busting 2016 paper (and also my personal favourite scientific quote of all time), “The numbers are similar enough that each defecation event may flip the ratio to favour human cells over bacteria.”
Anyway – most potentially bacteria only become dangerous when they get INSIDE our bodies to cause an infection.
The easiest way to stop this from happening is to wash our hands with soap and water before touching our food (and after preparing meat!), so that any nasties dwelling there won’t get transferred to our food or mouths.
Again, you may not like to hear this but – even after we have washed our hands, they are still covered in bacteria.
But that’s OK! It’s good bacteria. In fact, using anti-bacterial soap can disrupt our skin microbiome – and promote antibiotic resistance. Unless you’re in a hospital or the home of a person with a weakened immune system, it’s best to steer clear of these kinds of products.
Keep the fridge at 5°C or below, refrigerate any leftovers as soon as they’ve stopped steaming and use or freeze them within 3 days.
While many of us (myself included) have been brought up to leave food to cool to room temperature before refrigerating, this is actually the worst practice for minimising the risk of food poisoning.
It’s actually best to put food in the fridge as soon as it’s below 60°C – or when it’s stopped steaming.
The longer food is left to cool, the longer the bacteria which may have survived the cooking process have to multiply.
If you’re worried about the damage this may cause to your fridge and the rest of your refrigerated food, experts recommend leaving plenty of airspace between cooling food and the rest of the fridge’s contents. Storing cooling food in shallow sealed containers enables the food to cool faster and also stops evaporated water from forming ice in other areas of the fridge.
Cook poultry or minced products to 75°C in the centre, be aware of the risk of raw or minimally cooked egg dishes.
While some bacteria can survive oceanic hydrothermal vents, radioactive waste and battery acid, most of the bacteria we have reason to worry about will be dead by 75°C.
If in doubt, use a thermometer.
Prevent cross contamination especially between raw meat or poultry and any other food that won’t be cooked like salads.
Packing food into a fridge does require some forethought.
While for most of us it might be common sense not to store raw meat in the veggie crisper, it’s also important to remember to store uncooked food lower down in the fridge than cooked food. Fluids from raw meat can leak and contaminate the products stored below it.
If you’re living in a shared space, it’s also important to be aware of your housemates’ cultural and dietary requirements when it comes to food separation and contamination.
5. Don’t cook for others if you have gastro
You could make them sick too – so ask someone else to cook or get a takeaway.
Gastroenteritis can be caused by viruses and bacteria - but the most common cause is via virus.
It can be spread by eating contaminated food (hence: patients, please hold off the cooking), but also by touching contaminated objects. While lots of infectious agents need a warm environment to thrive, some are quite happy dwelling at room temperature for a few hours.
In some cases, infectious particles can reach the gut by being inhaled. Parents with the unfortunate task of cleaning up after a sick child are advised to wear face masks.
Although you might feel better after the first 24 hours of sickness, you could still be hosting the infection for the next 48 hours – so it’s important to remain vigilant with hand washing etc. during this time frame.