Your food habits could kill you and everyone you love.

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And some people you don’t know as well, probably.

I’m a chef and I’ve been working in the industry for almost twenty years. In that time I have dealt with numerous food poisoning allegation, routine food safety authority inspections and internal audits. I have completed food safety training with every company I have worked for, that is a dozen or more different courses and completed, and delivered, dozens of hours of in-house training.

In all this time I have never, ever worked in an environment or had personal work practises that I would consider unsafe.

Last week I cooked chicken soup and left it on the stove top for almost 48 hours, re-heating it on at least three separate occasions and enjoying its deliciousness over and over.

If I saw one of my colleagues do this in my place of work they would probably face a serious reprimand, if not disciplinary action, so why do we behave like this at home?

I completed a Level 3 Food Safety Management course with my company this week and, while this was a refresher course for me I was struck this time but the sheer numbers of reported and unreported cases of food borne illnesses it highlighted.

That ‘estimated’ figure is because a huge percentage of incidents go unreported.

Here’s the thing: While it seems logical to implicate the restaurant you just ate at as the source of your upset tummy, it is far more likely that our own bad habits at home are the culprit.

This is the main story that got to me. A whole family became seriously ill, including one dead child, because of a pasta salad. F£&king PAST SALAD! We put ourselves at risk in our homes in ways that no professional chef would ever allow.

So, what should you do to protect you and yours? Here are five simple policies you should adopt immediately at home.

  1. Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly. Besides the obvious post toilet/ sneeze/ bodily stuff, food handlers are taught to wash their hands after handling different kinds of produce (raw/cooked), after cigarette breaks, after touching their hair or face, even after cleaning something else. You should too.
  2. Two stage cleaning. Remember: detergent removes grease, disinfectant kills bacteria. The ONLY only other way to disinfect is to heat above 82ºC and none of your hottest taps will do it. While we’re on it, remember to disinfect contact surfaces as well i.e. cupboard handles, taps, appliance handles (when the last time you disinfected the kettle handle, or your mobile or computer mouse your using to read this while snacking on Doritos?)
  3. GET RID OF YOU DISHCLOTH AND NEVER USE A TEA TOWEL TO DRY DISHES AGAIN! Seriously, these are the absolute most effective vehicles along what is known as (my favourite food safety phrase) the ‘faecal – oral route’. That means E.Coli. Don’t but, don’t explain. Throw them out now! Let your dishes air dry after a thorough rinse.
  4. Organise your fridge so cooked stuff is at the top and raw is at the bottom. That means vegetables too. More correctly: ready to eat products should be stored where they are not going to get dripped on by raw chicken juices or touch raw vegetables. Remember, unwashed lettuces are ‘raw’. Once they’re washed, its ‘ready to eat’ and if you chuck it back in the salad draw its in with the possibly contaminated stuff again.
  5. Cook, cool as fast as possible and reheat only once. Generally bacteria are harmless but as they die they release toxins and this is what cause most food borne illnesses. Most bacteria grow best between 8ºC and 63ºC, and absolute optimum at around room temperature to 37ºC (that’s you and I temp). You naturally have bacteria in everything, right? You cook the stuff and the bugs die but leave behind toxins (and sometimes spores). At this stage, not too much issue. You reheat and there are new bugs, because biology, which have multiplied, but you kill them off. Now they’ve left more toxins and top of the old stuff. We’re still OK here because the bacteria are dead and the body is pretty good at dealing with toxins, unless you’re in a high risk group. After that first reheat, you’re in dangerous territory though. It’s safer (and more economical/ environmentally friendly) to just cook what you need each time, fresh. I know it doesn’t always work that way, and two-day old breakfast pizza is like manna from heaven but this is ‘best practice’.

I’m not a clean freak and I don’t have too many OCD tendencies so my fried rice from Monday is still in the fridge and I’m going now to snack on it. I just hope that some little piece of info here might save someone from making themselves or someone they care about, really ill.

If you want more information on this topic, head over to the UK Food Standards Agency website. There is some great stuff there.