Good food hygiene isn’t just something for restaurants to worry about. Whether you’re a budding chef or more at home with microwave meals and beans on toast, it’s important to know how to prepare food safely and hygienically. This article explains why food hygiene is important, and how to maintain it.
This information was published by Bupa's health information team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Bupa doctors. The content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.
Every day people get ill from the food they eat. Micro-organisms including bacteria, viruses and moulds found in food can cause food poisoning, leading to a whole host of unpleasant symptoms, such as stomach pains, diarrhoea and vomiting.
Food poisoning can sometimes lead to gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and bowel), or more serious health problems such as blood poisoning (septicaemia) and kidney failure.
Anyone can get food poisoning but some people, including babies, children and older people, are more likely to have serious symptoms. It’s important to eat healthily if you’re pregnant, and you need to be particularly careful not to get food poisoning.
Just bearing in mind a few simple points can help prevent a bout of food poisoning for you and your family.
It sounds simple enough, but many of us are guilty of forgetting – one of the most important things you can do is to make sure that your hands are clean at all times. This doesn’t mean just passing your hands under the tap – give them a proper scrub with soap. In particular, remember to wash your hands:
- after using the toilet
- before handling any food
- after handling raw meat
If possible, remove any rings, watches and bracelets before you handle food. This is because bacteria can hide under these and get transferred to your food.
Before you start preparing any food, make sure that the area you’re working in and the utensils you’re using are clean. Clean worktops thoroughly and wash utensils with washing up liquid and hot water, or use a dishwasher if you have one. Make sure you clean up any spilt food straight away.
Change all tea towels, dishcloths and other cleaning materials regularly as these can harbour bacteria, especially if they are left damp.
If you don’t follow the storage guidelines that come with your food, you could be letting yourself in for real problems. Storing food in the wrong place or at the wrong temperature can lead to the growth of bacteria.
- Always check labels for guidance on where to store food.
- Make sure you keep your fridge at less than 5°C and your freezer at less than -18°C – this prevents bacteria from multiplying. You can use a thermometer to regularly check these temperatures, or your fridge or freezer may have a thermometer built in.
- Store fresh and frozen food in the fridge or freezer as soon as possible after you have bought it. This is especially important if the weather is hot.
- Keep raw meat and seafood separate from other foods.
- Store raw meat in an airtight container at the bottom of the fridge to prevent juices or blood dripping onto other food.
- Defrost frozen foods in the fridge. Place them on a plate or in a container as they defrost so they don't drip onto or contaminate other foods.
- Don't store opened tins of food in the fridge – transfer the contents to a suitable airtight container instead.
- If you’re keeping cooked leftovers, allow them to cool to room temperature before you store them in the fridge. Make sure you use up any leftovers within two days.
- Throw away any food that has passed its use-by date.
There are a few points to remember when it comes to preparing your food.
Don't handle food if you have stomach problems such as diarrhoea or vomiting, or if you're sneezing or coughing regularly.
Check the food labels before you decide what to use. Shop-bought foods may come with different dates – a use-by or expiration date, and a best before date. Don’t use any foods that have passed their use-by date, even if you think they look fine, as they may not be safe to eat. However, you can use food after its best before date as this only refers to the quality of the food, rather than the safety of eating it. The only exception is eggs, which contain a type of bacteria called Salmonella that may multiply after the best before date. So always throw eggs away once this date has passed.
Keep anything that should be refrigerated out of the fridge for as short a time as possible, especially if the temperature is high or the room is very warm.
Always use different chopping boards and utensils to prepare raw meat or fish. This is because they contain harmful bacteria that can spread to anything they touch so they should be kept away from other foods. The bacteria are removed during cooking, but it’s important not to let them come into contact with any food that you’re not going to cook before eating it.
You may be able to buy colour-coded chopping boards, which can help to prevent confusion.
Cooking food at temperatures over 70°C will kill off any bacteria. If food isn't cooked at a high enough temperature, bacteria can still survive.
- Follow the recipe or packet instructions for cooking time and temperature, making sure that you pre-heat your oven properly.
- Food should be piping hot – you should be able to see steam coming out – before you serve it. You can use a food thermometer to check that food is cooked to the right temperature.
- Take special care that you cook meat all the way through. Unless you’re cooking steak or lamb and beef joints rare, it shouldn’t be pink in the middle. Use a clean skewer to pierce the meat. If it’s cooked properly, the juices will run clear. If you’re cooking meat so it’s rare, make sure that it’s properly sealed (browned) on the outside.
- Always re-heat pre-cooked food thoroughly and only do so once.
- When cooking food in the microwave, stir it well from time to time to ensure that it’s evenly cooked all the way through.
- Five keys to safer food manual. World Health Organization.www.who.int, published 2006
- Germ watch. Food Standards Agency.www.eatwell.gov.uk, accessed 2 July 2010
- Preparing. Food Standards Agency.www.eatwell.gov.uk, accessed 12 July 2010
- Best before. Food standards Agency.www.eatwell.gov.uk, accessed 12 July 2010
- Storing. Food Standards Agency.www.eatwell.gov.uk, accessed 12 July 2010
- Cooking. Food Standards Agency.www.eatwell.gov.uk, accessed 2 July 2010
- Food poisoning – what to do. Food Standards Agency.www.eatwell.gov.uk, accessed 13 July 2010
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