Food safety and hygiene

8 October 2010
I received an email recently from a woman who has developed a phobia about cooking from scratch, particularly when it involves cooking meat. This is part of her email:

"Meat is a particular issue. If I don't use it on the day of purchase I HAVE to freeze it or I think it will go off but then I worry that it has not defrosted properly before cooking so I'm going to kill us all anyway. However, I can panic about listeria on salad if there is no meat in the meal. I have never given us food poisoning. I don't even remember having food poisoning."

In all the years I've been cooking, and in the years before that as a child eating my mother's food, I don't remember having food poisoning either. If cooks maintain general standards of hygiene, store food correctly, wash their hands before handling food and buy food from reputable merchants, the problem of food poisoning should be minimal.

If there is blame here, I lay it at the feet of manufacturers and advertisers of antibacterial wipes, soap and hand washes. The best thing to clean any home is soap and water, then dry your surfaces with a dry rag. Antibacterial cleaners don't kill all bugs, or even 99 percent of them, as the advertisers claim. And we shouldn't even be aiming to kill off all the bacteria on our skin or in our homes. Much of it is beneficial and if we didn't have it around us, we wouldn't be able to digest our food and our immune systems would be compromised.

These are simple steps that will help you deliver healthy food to your family.
  • Always wash your hands before handling food and frequently while preparing food.
  • Wipe your preparation area down with soap and water and dry with a dry rag before and after food prep.
  • Wash your hands after you handle meat, fish or chicken.
  • Use a brightly coloured board chopping board for meat, fish and chicken only.
  • Keep meat on the bottom shelf of the fridge so any drips don't land on food sitting underneath it.
  • Defrost meat in the fridge, on the bottom shelf.
  • Keep meat in the fridge until you need to cook it.
  • Avoid contact between cooked and uncooked food.
  • When meat is cooked, serve it straight away.
  • Buy fresh food that is in season.
  • Know where your food comes from. I believe fruit and vetgetables from a market is superior to that in a supermarket. Ask the market seller where s/he gets the produce from and how old it is.
  • Get to know your butcher. A local butcher is more likely to be able to tell you where the meat comes from. Our local butcher sells local meat. The fewer miles your food has travelled to get to you, the better.
  • When you get the food home, store it correctly.
  • Change your dishcloths and tea towels daily.

While it is debilitating to have a phobia such as this, I believe it can be overcome by following these simple rules and remembering what you told me in the email: "I have never given us food poisoning. I don't even remember having food poisoning."

What you're already doing is effective and safe. Pat yourself on the back, get rid of your antibacterial wipes, continue to prepare food in a safe and sensible way, and don't watch those stupid commercials about antibacterial cleaning. I guess we all have to believe in ourselves too. Remember, there are good bacteria as well as the bad stuff and going by your record of never having food poisoning, I'd say you're doing the right things, you just have to believe you are.

From Australian ABC
News in Science