Every year millions of people get sick from eating contaminated food and while it may be easy to point the finger of blame in the direction of restaurants and street food vendors, in a significant number of cases, food made and consumed at home is the culprit.
Food poisoning is the most common form of illness that results from eating contaminated food. While most of these infections are not serious, they sure cause a lot of discomfort until treated. Common symptoms of food poisoning are:
- Diarrhea (can be bloody)
- Abdominal Cramps
- In infants – Lethargy, Poor Feeding, Constipation
There are three major causes of food poisoning- bacteria, viruses, and parasites. These are caused by improper food handling, processing and use of water that may contain bacteria from human or animal waste. These bacteria spread when an infected person doesn’t wash their hands after using the bathroom and then touches food. Raw, uncooked and unpasteurized foods are especially at fault since thorough cooking or pasteurization kills the bacteria. Bacillus cereus is a toxin-producing bacteria, which causes what is known as the “Fried Rice Syndrome” known so because leftover fried rice is a primary culprit. Rice is often cooked and left at room temperature before frying to avoid the formation of clumps. Unfortunately, reheating does not always ensure the killing of the bacteria and can cause food poisoning. Similarly, fish that has not been stored at the correct temperature has a high risk of being contaminated with histamine, a toxin produced by bacteria in fish. Histamine is not destroyed by normal cooking temperatures and the only way to avoid getting it is to ensure you keep your store-bought seafood chilled and refrigerated before cooking.
Parasites spread through food are very dangerous with Toxoplasma, found in cat litter boxes being one of the most common. Parasites can live in your digestive system for years and can cause serious harm to people with a weakened immune systems and pregnant women.
Virus too can cause food poisoning with norovirus, also known as the Norwalk virus, being the most common cause of food poisoning each year. Norovirus is very contagious and can spread quickly. Hepatitis A is one of the most dangerous and can be transmitted through food.
Correct choices in buying, storing and cooking food are the only ways to make sure your dream dinner doesn’t turn into a nightmare. There are four steps between getting the food and consuming it that we need to keep a check on.
- Clean: The area where food is prepared, the utensils that it will be prepared in, the hands that will touch the food and the food itself, all need to be thoroughly cleaned. Washing hands for at least 2 minutes while scrubbing the back, palms, in between the fingers and under the nails is extremely important. This should be done often and especially after using the bathroom. Along with this, washing knives, chopping boards and other surfaces with warm soapy water is a good way to ensure no bacteria makes its way to your stomach. Dirty and damp dishcloths and scrubs are great places for bacteria to hide. Make sure you keep yours clean and dry.
- Separate and Store: Put food in the fridge or freezer within 1-2 hours after cooking or buying from the store. Remember the hotter it is outside, the sooner the food should go in the fridge. Store raw food separately and by itself as germs can spread from one to the other. Do not reuse leftover condiments or marinades that you may have used on raw foods earlier. Use a separate cutting board for meats and vegetables. Use the fridge set to the right temperature (between 0°C and 5°C) to store raw and cooked foods. Always store dairy products such as milk, cheese, and butter in the fridge.
- Cook: Cooking kills most harmful bacteria, so always cook food well before consuming. Make sure you eat food while it’s still hot and not been sitting for a while. Always reheat food till its steaming hot and ensure that it is reheated evenly. If you like to cook in bulk and freeze for later, make sure you use chilled food within 2 days of cooking. If cooked food has been frozen and then defrosted, reheat it within 24 hours. Make sure you defrost meat and fish thoroughly before cooking. Partially defrosted food may not cook evenly leaving bacteria in it. While cooking is a great way to make food safe, you can also enjoy biting into fruit and vegetables raw. Just make sure you always wash fruit and vegetables before you eat them to remove any surface dirt or bacteria.
Food is more than a biological necessity. It is over food that we bond with fellow humans and celebrate life. Preparing food safely and hygienically is a great way to enjoy this simple pleasure for long.