Whether you know it or not, the chances are something in your kitchen has made you ill over the years. Perhaps it was that stomachache you suffered with last Christmas. Or maybe it was that unexplained bout of sickness after last week’s Sunday lunch. The average household kitchen is a potential breeding ground for food poisoning bacteria — unless you take the necessary precautions.
In the vast majority of cases, food poisoning isn’t serious. After a few hours of sickness, diarrhoea and stomach cramps, the body fights it off relatively effectively. But some cases of food poisoning can be potentially life-threatening.
Campylobacter, E. coli and salmonella are just three of the many different varieties of bacteria that can lead to serious food poisoning. But if you follow some key hygiene rules, store your food properly and cook it thoroughly, you can minimise the chances of a serious bout of poisoning.
The symptoms of domestic food poisoning
You’ll usually begin to suffer the symptoms of food poisoning within two days of eating infected food. However, in some cases symptoms can present themselves after just a couple of hours.
The first symptoms are usually nausea and stomach cramping. As the condition worsens, vomiting and diarrhoea take hold. These nasty effects are often followed by extreme fatigue, a loss of appetite and a fever. Some people also experience cramping and pain in various muscles around the body.
Most people get over these symptoms within 48 hours. However, if they persist, medical attention should be sought.
What are the different types of food poisoning?
There are many different food poisoning bacteria in the home, but here are some of the most common — and the most serious:
Campylobacter is found on meat and poultry, and can occur when animal faeces comes into contact with meat. The bacteria is also found in water and unpasteurised milk.
Clostridium botulinum can often be found in poorly sealed tinned products. It can be a problem in foods that are hot held for too long.
Again, clostridium perfringens tend to be found in cooked meat dishes that are hot held at insufficient temperatures.
A common source of E. coli contamination is meat coming into contact with faeces at slaughterhouses. It’s also found in unpasteurised milk, raw vegetables and water.
Listeria is usually found in cooked meats, unwashed raw vegetables and unpasteurised milk. It’s also spread by cross contamination through water and soil.
Norovirus is actually a group of viruses that can cause serious vomiting and diarrhoea. It’s commonly found in shellfish, cooked meat and human hands.
Salmonella is found in most meats, eggs and unpasteurised milk. It is also present on unwashed vegetables.
Staphylococcus aureus is present in contaminated meats, cooked meats and pre-prepared foods. It emanates from the human respiratory system, and is spread by coughs, sneezes and dirty hands.
How does food poisoning happen?
There are two main ways in which bacteria can infect food: direct contamination and indirect contamination.
Direct contamination refers to the transfer of bacteria from one thing to another. For example, if raw meat drips onto cooked meat in the fridge, this would be direct contamination.
Cross contamination involves a third party, surface or utensil. For example, if you were to cut infected raw meat with a knife, and use that same knife to cut raw salad vegetables, that would be considered as cross contamination. There are countless other examples, including infected hands, infected preparation surfaces and infected storage areas.
What can I do to reduce the risk of food poisoning?
Fortunately, minimising the risk of food poisoning in your home isn’t rocket science — it’s common sense. By adopting the following practices in your own kitchen, you can drastically reduce the amount of infected food that ends up on plates at your dining table.
Sanitise worktops after every use
Every time you prepare food on a worktop, sanitise it. You can do this with an antibacterial spray, or even hot, soapy water if you prefer. You can also use a handheld steam cleaner or the most appropriate accessory on a steam mop. Superheated steam cleans, but it also kills the vast majority of food poisoning bacteria.
Wash hands after changing activities
As a simple rule of thumb, wash your hands every time you change activities in the kitchen. For example, wash your hands after preparing raw meats, cooked meats, raw vegetables etc. Also, wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning, or after taking out the rubbish.
Wash dishcloths and tea towels every day
Tea towels and dishcloths are perfect breeding grounds for bacteria. They’re warm and damp, and they often have food stuck to them. At the end of every day, or when they’ve come into direct contact with dirty hands or raw food, throw them in the wash.
Adopt good chopping board practices
Take a look inside any commercial kitchen, and you’ll probably see several different colour-coded chopping boards in use. A green board, for example, is used for raw vegetables. A red board is used for raw meat, while a blue board is used for raw fish. This colour-coding reduces the risk of cross contamination between foods. Assign a board to each category of food, and stick to your system permanently.
Store raw meat properly
There should never be any uncovered raw meat in your fridge. Meat juices can spread some of the most dangerous food poisoning bacteria to raw foods you eat straight from the fridge shelf. If meat isn’t packaged, place it in an airtight container, and label it with the expiry date. Also, keep all of your raw meat at the very bottom of your fridge or freezer.
Cook food right through
The best way to ensure food poisoning is never an issue in your kitchen is to cook everything thoroughly. Most chickens in British supermarkets are infected with campylobacter. But the reason food poisoning from these chickens is so rare is because people cook their chickens at high temperatures. Invest in a probe thermometer for your high-risk foods, and ensure that the core temperature reaches at least 75C.
Never wash meat
Never make the mistake of washing meat. There’s no need to, as the cooking process delivers the heat needed to kill the vast majority of bacteria. All you’re doing by washing meat is splashing and spraying that dangerous bacteria across various surfaces in your kitchen. This drastically increases the chances of cross contamination.
Monitor the temperature in your fridge and freezer
The absolute maximum temperature in any fridge should never exceed 8C. However, to stay safe, make 5C your limit. And don’t rely on the fridge itself to deliver an accurate temperature – use a dedicated fridge thermometer. And place it on the top shelf towards the front.
Take care with leftovers
You don’t need to worry unduly about reheating leftovers, if you follow a few simple rules. For example, anything that needs to be reheated should be eaten within 48 hours. When you cool food, do so quickly. Ideally, your hot food should be brought down to fridge temperature within 90 minutes of cooking. Make sure the food reaches the crucial core temperature of 75C when you reheat it.
Always abide by use-by dates
There is a little confusion about expiry dates. ‘Best before’ dates relate to food quality. Although foods are best eaten before this date, they aren’t usually dangerous after it. ‘Use by’ dates, however, are a completely different proposition. These foods are deemed dangerous to human health after this date — and no amount of cooking will change that fact. Without exception, throw away anything that is past its ‘use by’ date.
As long as you’re vigilant and meticulous about cleaning in the kitchen, you should be able to protect yourself and your family from the horrors of food poisoning