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Other nutrients

Intestinal bacterial flora Balanced diet
Food guide pyramid
Obesity and weight control
Pregnancy and lactation
Infancy (0–1 year of age)
Young children (1–6 years)
Adolescents (10–20 years)
Anorexia nervosa and bulimia
Vegetarianism and veganism
Diet selection
How to interpret food labels
Food allergy and food intolerance
Food toxicity
Avoiding food-borne illness
Dietary fibre

Avoiding food-borne illness

Damage to health by food can be caused by the ingestion of micro-organisms in the food, by the ingestion of toxins produced by the organisms in the food, or by a combination of these. In addition, infestation by parasites may occur. When enough toxin is ingested it will produce illness fairly quickly, usually within an hour. The most common effects are abdominal discomfort, nausea and vomiting, but often not diarrhoea. Other effects occur more rarely, usually affecting the nervous system and may sometimes be fatal (such as botulism). Cooking the food may destroy the toxin but this does not always happen and should not be relied upon. Food contaminated by toxin may appear to be safe, showing no change in colour or consistency and no abnormal smell or taste. In contrast to food containing only toxin, food contaminated by dangerous microorganisms causes illness only after the organisms have had time to multiply in the body, which may take hours or even days. Although the most common effects are abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, many other forms of illness may occur and may even be fatal. Food containing such organisms may taste or smell unusual but often it appears normal. Cooking the food so that its temperature is raised throughout to at least 70°C (158°F) for several minutes will almost always kill the organisms and will make the food safe provided little or no heat-stable toxin is also in the food.

Any food which may be unsafe should not be fed to pets.

In the shops

When buying food, choose a supplier whose premises are clean and in which the perishable food is kept cold or frozen in cooling units which are working properly as shown by a thermometer or recording device.

These units should not be overfilled. The food packaging should be clean, intact and should display a clear ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date. The staff should be clean and competent. When unpackaged food is being sold, the staff should not handle the food with bare hands but use disposable gloves. Cooked food should not be sold at the same counter as uncooked food. When buying cooked food which is going to be eaten without further preparation be very critical about the food display and the behaviour of the staff. Staff serving unpackaged cooked food should not handle money. After purchasing perishable food, keep it as cool as possible until it is eaten, cooked or stored in a refrigerator or freezer. Do not allow it to remain in a warm car for an extended period.

In the kitchen

Before preparing food at home, always wash the hands with soap in running warm water. Dry the hands on a clean hand-towel (not the dish-drying towel) or with paper towels. If it is necessary to use a handkerchief or go to the toilet, wash the hands again before continuing food preparation. Keep the finger nails short. When preparing food, do not touch pets, which should not be in the kitchen and should never be allowed on to surfaces used for food. Their feet and body surfaces are covered with microorganisms. Any surface they sit on will be freely contaminated by their anal region. Keep kitchens free of flies. Keep cooked and uncooked food well away from each other. Use separate utensils for cooked and uncooked food. Do not lick the fingers. Use a clean spoon for tasting items (not the mixing spoon) and wash it before re-use. Do not prepare food for others if the hands are infected. Make use of spoons, forks and tongs rather than the hands for preparing food. Pick up utensils by the handle end. Use disposable gloves, especially when handling raw meat and poultry. Food prepared some hours in advance should be kept in a refrigerator. Organisms will grow rapidly at kitchen temperature, often fast enough in one hour to cause illness. All food should be carefully washed or peeled before cooking or serving raw. Wash all crockery and utensils in hot water with detergent and then rinse well in warm running water. Left-over food to be used again should be refrigerated or frozen as soon as possible and not allowed to stand in a warm room. Reheating later may kill organisms which have grown before cooling but it may not always destroy any toxins released into the food. Wash and dry all working surfaces thoroughly when food preparation is finished. Frozen items are best thawed by placing in the refrigerator overnight.

  The most satisfactory way to thaw large frozen items is to place them in a refrigerator overnight so that they remain cool on the surface during thawing. If large items taking several hours to thaw are allowed to stand in a warm room there is the chance that organisms contaminating the outer parts may have ample time to multiply and perhaps produce heat-stable toxins. Do not refreeze frozen food once thawed.

In the refrigerator and freezer

Do not overload the refrigerator or freezer and do not put hot food into either. Allow spaces between stored items so that the air can circulate freely. Use a thermometer in the refrigerator to make sure the temperature is 1–4°C in the warmest place. Listeria grows well at 6°C but only slowly below 4°C. For the freezer, the thermometer must read -18°C or lower. Keep both pieces of equipment clean inside by carefully wrapping or sealing everything put into them. It is very important to prevent raw food from contaminating food which is to be eaten without further cooking.

On a picnic

Keep all perishable food in a cool-box with plentiful ice. Use tinned or bottled food if possible and open the containers just before eating. Take water, soap and towels for washing the hands before preparing the food and eating.

The ‘at-risk’ groups

These are the very young, the very old, all pregnant women and anyone with a deficient immune system. They should avoid soft cheeses, pâtés and pre-cooked meat, poultry, fish and shellfish to be eaten without further cooking. Hard cheeses, processed cheeses, cottage cheeses and cheese spreads are almost always safe. Salad items must always be carefully washed because they are sometimes contaminated by listeria organisms. All egg dishes must be cooked long enough to make the yolk solid. Items containing raw or only lightly cooked eggs should be avoided. All meat, poultry and fish must be thoroughly cooked so that no parts are even pink. Wrapped ice-cream is safer than scoop ice-cream.