Friday, 13 April 2012

Don’t panic! Food poisoning is nasty, but easily avoided

The consumer organisation “Which?” has caused what appears to be a major media scare with its report that 18% (or as reported today, one in five) chickens it tested had food poisoning bug Campylobacter. 

Read about it here:

“Which?” is a pretty well respected outfit. I greatly doubt that they wanted us all to panic and worry. I think the intention was to encourage the major supermarkets to ensure they and their suppliers worked to reduce the health risks to consumers.  But in the big media hoo-ha which has ensued, “Which?” have been accused of ‘scaremongering’. 

So let’s look at what this story is about, because there really is no need to panic.

Campylobacter? What is it and do I need to worry?

Campylobacter is a form of bacteria. It occurs naturally. It happens to dwell inside animals, including poultry. Remember those adverts for health drinks like Yakult and Actimel? Well, they have bacterial cultures which are designed to top up levels of ‘good bacteria’ living in your gut. Campylobacter is simply a not-so-good bacterium. (The singular of bacteria is ‘bacterium’; that was not a typo!)

It may help to think of Campylobacter as the ‘BBQ Bug’. Because the weather is warmer in Spring and Summer, the bug can multiply more easily, and it is many of the features of a typical BBQ party which can help cause food poisoning.

But there is NO NEED TO WORRY! There are few simple rules and techniques you can use in your kitchen and at a BBQ party to avoid food poisoning. I will deal with them later.

Why have I never heard of Campylobacter before? Is it new?

It isn’t new. It just hasn’t been the cause of major outbreaks of illness like the more famous bugs Salmonella, its unpleasant cousin E Coli (or Escherichia coli as it is known to its friends) or Listeria. 

What will happen if I get Campylobacter inside me?

You won’t feel very well and may spend a lot of time in the toilet. You are most likely to suffer vomiting and diarrhoea. You may also get stomach cramps. You are more likely to suffer these symptoms between 2 and 5 days of eating the affected food, although it could be a bit longer. It is highly unlikely to kill you, unless you have a weakened immune system or pre-existing illness.

How can it be avoided?

1.       Keep your fridge cold enough; Your fridge should be at a temperature of between 0°C to 5°C (or 32°F to 41°F). Please note that this will only prevent the bacteria from multiplying. Sadly, the little buggers are not killed in the fridge (or the freezer for that matter).

2.       Thaw frozen meat slowly; uneven temperature changes can cause the bad bacteria to multiply. Thawing in the fridge rather than by leaving frozen meat out in the kitchen or by soaking in hot water will be safer as the process will be even and gradual.

3.       Never refreeze anything you have thawed. Ever. As set out above, freezing doesn’t kill the bacteria. The thawed meat will be warmer than frozen, and once above 5°C, the bacteria will start to multiply again. Refreezing will just put the newly increased bacteria population into a sort of ‘suspended animation’ until they can come back at you with vigour. It is just not worth it!

4.       Wrap or box all meat and dairy products. Do not leave loose meat or cheese floating around your fridge. Please, please do not allow juices from meat to drip onto other items in your fridge. It is messy and will make you very ill.

5.       Keep cooked meat and meat products away from uncooked meats in your fridge

6.       If you are vulnerable (very young, very old, pregnant or suffering from reduced immune function), avoid any dairy products which have not been pasteurised. The pasteurisation process (which involves heating the milk used in the products to a very high temperature, maintaining that temperature for a given period then cooling very rapidly) reduces the possibility of the bacteria growing.

7.       Do not wash your meat. It doesn’t work in removing bacteria. It just means that you splash water droplets and bacteria all around your kitchen, which can result in everything being contaminated; your worktops, pans, utensils and other ingredients. Oh, and the floor.

8.       Cooking is what will kill the bacteria. You are aiming to get all meat up to a temperature of around 70°C (165°F). This is hot enough to kill the horrid beasties.

9.       Steaks and roasts made of red meat are the only meaty things you can eat cooked rare. And you still have to try to make sure that the pink middle reaches 70°C. Do not think of eating chicken rare; uncooked chicken is a major source of food poisoning. Mixed meat products like sausages cannot be eaten rare (as the production process will have mixed a whole load of potential nasties all through your sausages). There are similar risks to shop bought minced meat. Like steak tartare? Make it yourself from a slab of steak.

10.   Have 2 chopping boards; one for meat/fish and another for everything else. Wash them thoroughly after each use. If you have a dishwasher, get yourself 2 plastic chopping boards which you can just chuck in at the end of a cooking session. Wood will warp/split in the heat of the dishwasher. If you have wood boards, make sure you scrub thoroughly and allow them to dry completely between uses.

11.   Don’t eat meat products after the ‘Use By’ date (UK Readers).  After the ‘Use By’ date has passed, a food product is theoretically unfit for human consumption. ‘Best Before’ is literally about the optimum time to consume a food product. ‘Display Until’ is an indicator for the shop selling the product to remove from the display, usually for cosmetic reasons (ditto ‘Sell By’). ‘Best Before’, ‘Display Until’ and ‘Sell By’ dates can all be exceeded, but within reason. Don’t take too many chances.

12.   Make sure you cook things on the BBQ properly; the big mistake made is gauging whether the BBQ is hot enough to cook on or not. You will probably need to light your BBQ up to 30 minutes before you can start cooking. The coals should have had a really good chance to burn and start going white with ash. The biggest mistake made is putting the food on whilst the fuel is burning at its hottest, totally burning the outside of the food and leaving the middle nearly raw.

13.   Perfectly cooked BBQ meat has the following characteristics: it is NOT PINK, the juices run clear (no pink or red), the meat is steaming (piping hot) all over.

14.   Don’t reuse used meat marinade unless it is heated up to at least 70°C or until boiling. Don’t put it back in the fridge. Do not be tempted to use as a salad dressing. This is one of the easiest ways of giving yourself food poisoning! 

Do any of you have any other advice on how to enjoy your food safely?

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