18 Jun Why everyone has a part to play in food safety
These days food provides us with much joy, entertainment and social connection.
But we can only experience these things with the benefits of food hygiene, because more than just being highly unpleasant, a bout of food poisoning can have dire consequences, even death.
Each year, one in ten people around the world fall sick and hundreds of thousands die from contaminated food. Developed or developing nations alike, it affects all countries and it is an enormous economic burden and strain on our healthcare systems.
On average in Australia, food poisoning affects an estimated 4.1 million people each year causing 31,920 hospitalisations and 86 deaths.
So, this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) Food Safety Day reminds us that food standards help us to ensure what we eat is safe.
The main sources of food safety issues are pathogenic microorganisms including viruses, bacteria and some parasites or their toxins.
The good news is that many foodborne illnesses are preventable with some simple actions:
- Wash fruits and vegetables using clean water at home – including pre-washed products – before consuming them to help minimise the risk of foodborne infections from bacteria like Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter and E. coli.
- Don’t store raw poultry and seafood products with fresh produce to minimise cross-contamination. Poultry is the main source for both salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis, with the latter the most commonly notified cause of gastroenteritis.
- Never eat or buy produce that looks spoiled or bulging, rusted, leaking, or deeply dented cans as the poison produced by some nasty bacteria like Clostridium botulinum in canned goods can be deadly in some cases.
- Make sure kitchen surfaces are clean
- Use the correct temperature and time for cooking. The golden rule is “keep it cold, keep it hot, or make it quick”.
- Hazardous foods include raw and cooked poultry meat, foods containing eggs (cooked or raw), dairy products – like milk, cream and fresh custard – seafood, sprouted seeds, cut fruit, salad and vegetables, cooked rice, and fresh or cooked pasta, sandwiches, pizzas and sushi.
- Keep your food, especially these hazardous products at 5°C and 60°C or hotter after cooking up until serving to keep it safe.
- If these foods have been in the danger zone for less than two hours, you should use them immediately or store them appropriately. In two to four hours the food must be used immediately and for longer than four hours, especially in hot summer weather, the food must be discarded. This is known as the two-hour/four-hour rule.
Food contamination by chemicals, allergens and foreign matters
Naturally occurring toxins such as mycotoxins (toxins produced by fungus) and environmental pollutants like pesticide residues are the major chemical contaminants in food. Aflatoxin produced by certain mould on grains or corn is a good example of mycotoxin.
Long-term consumption of this naturally occurring chemical contaminant affects our immune system and normal development, and can cause cancer. Some mushrooms can produce toxic chemicals too.
An allergen is any normally harmless substance that causes an immediate allergic reaction in a sensitive person because their immune system reacts to allergens. Most food allergens are proteins although other food constituents, such as certain additives, are known to have allergy-causing properties.
Some food allergic reactions are life-threatening. So, comprehensive labelling of food products showing all ingredients is really important and consumers should read labels and recipes carefully to avoid incidences. If unsure about any ingredients in food, better to avoid them.
A prime example of foreign matter contamination of food is the 2018 strawberry tampering incident in Australia where numerous punnets of strawberries grown in Queensland were found to be contaminated with needles.
Consumers have found dead frogs, lizards, snakes and even small mammals and birds or their parts in packaged fresh salads. Foreign matter contamination including metal and plastics in food also occurs, with recent incidences listed in the current food recalls list of Food Standard Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ).
Make sure to pay regular attention to the media for any notifications of food poisoning outbreaks, food recalls or updates related to food safety before food purchasing, preparation or consumption. These messages can help avoid many potential food safety hazards.
People at higher risk
If a healthy adult is exposed to certain food safety hazards, they may be able to quickly recover thanks to their healthy immune system.
But young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people whose immune systems are weakened due to illness or medical treatments are always at higher risk of food hazards leading to serious health problems.
There’s good and bad news
The bad news is we cannot completely eliminate these food safety hazards. For example, pathogenic microorganisms share the same environments as us, they are robust and have various mechanisms to survive in harsh conditions such as freezing.
The good news is, through food standards, proper food manufacturing and handling practices, good agricultural practices and education, most of these food safety issues can be preventable.
In simple terms, food standards are a set of criteria that any food must meet if it is to be suitable for human consumption, including source, composition, appearance, freshness, permissible additives, and maximum microorganism contents.
In Australia, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) develops the food standards and the Federal Government and State and Territory Governments enforce the standards, in line with their food legislation. Different countries have different regulations, so the Department of Agriculture ensures that imported products meet our strict biosecurity laws and food standards.
On a global scale, The Codex Alimentarius Commission, Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organisation (WHO) work to ensure the health of consumers and trading practices.
However, since food safety hazards cannot be completely eliminated and we cannot guarantee the food safety practices of every country, it is always better to be cautious with imported food products. For example, always purchase them from trusted suppliers or vendors and make sure to read food labels and recipes carefully.
Food safety is everyone’s business
Australia has a reputation, locally and internationally, as a safe, clean, reliable and sustainable producer of high-quality food. But this does not mean that it is only the government authorities and the food industry who ensure food safety.
It is a shared responsibility between them and us, as consumers or members of the general public, because the way in which food is produced, stored, handled and consumed affects the safety of our food.
Additionally, we should get to know what can trigger allergies, pay attention to media often on food safety issues and educate others.
In other words, when it comes to food safety, everyone is a risk manager.
Dr Senaka Ranadheera is a Senior Lecturer (Food Processing & Preservation), School of Agriculture, Food & Ecosystem Sciences, Faculty of Science, University of Melbourne