Many of us have experienced food poisoning at some point in our lives, and while it’s not usually serious, it can be unpleasant.
Symptoms of food poisoning may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever, headache and weakness, and they can occur anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks after you have eaten contaminated food.
What causes food poisoning?
Food poisoning is an acute illness caused by consumption of contaminated or poisonous food, most commonly contaminated by bacteria, chemicals, molds and viruses.
- Bacteria: Campylobacter, E. coli, Listeria and salmonella are the most common causes of bacterial food poisoning.
- Viruses: Norovirus accounts for most cases of viral food poisoning, and is often the result of poor hygiene - including personal hygiene, during food preparation.
- Parasites: Tapeworm, ringworm and protozoa are the most common food-borne parasites. In the latter group, Toxoplasma gondii is responsible for the most severe cases of food poisoning.
Reducing your risk of food poisoning
Food that is contaminated with food poisoning bacteria smells, looks and tastes normal.
Knowing the type of micro-organism that caused your food poisoning can be helpful in treating it, however, being selective about what you eat and how you handle, store and prepare foods is essential in preventing food poisoning in the first place.
Follow these six tips to minimize your exposure to contaminated foods:
- Avoid raw or undercooked foods: In their raw or unprocessed state, certain high-risk foods including meat, poultry, shellfish and dairy products, can often be contaminated with a large number of food poisoning microorganisms. Only by thoroughly cooking at temperatures between 70-82°C, or in the case of dairy items like milk and cheese, through pasteurization, can these bacteria be destroyed.
With poultry, properly cooked means white meat must have changed from pink to white all the way through, while fish or seafood should be cooked until opaque. Cooking beef or lamb thoroughly doesn’t have to mean ‘well-done’; with steaks, cutlets or joints you can still have some pink meat inside, as long as they are correctly cooked on the outside. Burgers and sausages, however, should be cooked all the way through. Using a thermometer is helpful in judging whether foods are cooked to the required temperature.
- Wash and disinfect fruit and vegetables: Soak fruit and vegetables in water salt solution for 5 minutes, before gently brushing and rinsing with clean water.
- Discard out-of-date foods: If food has passed its use-by-date, there’s an increased risk of harmful micro-organisms having developed within it. Even if it smells and looks okay, you should avoid eating it to stay on the safe side.
- Pay attention to temperature: Always store perishable items immediately and at an appropriate temperature. Keep your fridge set to below 5°C and your freezer at -18°C. Return foods, particularly dairy items or those containing dairy products, to the fridge as soon as you have finished using them.
- Prevent cross-contamination: This applies to both preparation and storage. Use different sets of utensils and equipment for preparing raw meat, poultry, fish, shellfish and vegetables or ensure proper cleaning and disinfection of utensils before switching to preparation of ready to eat foods. Store raw meat, poultry, shellfish and fish away from other foods, and in the bottom shelf of the fridge to prevent any spill contamination.
- Maintain good hygiene: Pathogenic micro-organisms can easily be spread if hands aren’t adequately washed before or during handling food. The same goes for kitchen utensils and equipment. Wash at a sufficiently high water temperature and rinse off each item with clean water.
Advice for eating out
Taking preventative action against food poisoning is easier at home where you’re fully in control of the foods you buy and how they are stored and prepared. However, when you eat out you can also take steps to minimize your risk:
- Be cautious of dishes with raw ingredients: That’s not to say no sushi or steak tartare, just to be careful when eating it – if it doesn’t smell or look right, or has been sitting out for a long time, it’s wise to avoid it. Equally, if your dish turns up with meat, poultry, fish, shellfish or eggs that look undercooked or not to your liking, don’t hesitate to send it back to the kitchen.
- Pay attention to cleanliness: Be selective about where you eat. Choose restaurants or cafes that look clean, tidy and organized, online and magazine reviews can also be a good indicator of restaurant hygiene, as well as food and service quality.
- Look for food rotation: If you’re at a buffet, take note of whether the dishes are being served at an appropriate temperature, and how frequently they are being replaced or replenished.