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


  1. Funny: I have a hard time trusting food handling methods from outside sources.

    I know the care I take in preparing food: I suspect others in restaurants etc. rarely have that same mindfulness. In fact, the last time I saw someone in a restaurant handle food and then the cash register and back again, is forever etched in my mind. :-0

    PS: Happy Thanksgiving (Canada).

  2. Great post Rhonda :) I used to have a worry about making jams and chutneys because I thought I might give everyone food poisoning if I didn't sterilise the jars properly. Well, I finally made some a few weeks ago- and we're all still alive!!

    A completely agree that the manufacturers and also the media play a massive part in our 'no germs' obsession. The media are always going on about the latest 'superbug', flu pandemic or new bacteria that is going to kill us all- it's very sad.

  3. Also remember that we, as humans, are designed to deal with a certain amount of bad bacterial contamination. We have the same bodies as our caveman ancestors and they weren't even able to wash with soap and water or keep things refridgerated. One of the functions of the acids in our stomach is to neutralize bad bacteria in food like salmonella. Generally speaking, unless you're feeding a baby, or someone elderly or with a compromised immune system, the worst that will happen is some short term discomfort.

  4. I worry so much less than I used to .. especially about milk products that we ferment (kefir, buttermilk, yogurt). Using your sense of smell is another tool about telling the freshness of foods.

  5. I totally agree with you about anti-bacterial wipes and the like, because we need some germs. Our bodies are capable of dealing with most germs and we need to build up a level of immunity to them. Some good, sensible advice in your post!

  6. Here, here! I agree totally about the anti-bacterial junk that they are trying to foist down our throats. They are nothing but a bunch of fear mongers. The reason we CAN deal with bugs in our environment is because we have been exposed to them and our bodies have built up a resistance. Since the inception of these stupid products there has been an increase in allergies. Doesn't that tell us something. In our grandmother's day, people didn't drop of their perch from normal household bacteria.

  7. Another thing to avoid is buying salads, cold meats and prepared food that is sold at the same counter as fresh uncooked meat and often handled by the same person. The possibility of cross infection is very high and often results in food poisoning.
    Really they shouldn't even be next to each other in the same chill cabinet.
    I also have separate chopping boards for meat, onions and raw veg and others for fruit,salad vegs and then for cakes, bread and dry products.
    Touch wood we have only suffered food poisoning as a result of eating in restaurants§

  8. I heard an incredible comment from a chef recently talking about Pro-biotic cleaning - another gimmick I am sure to sell something - apparantly this won't kill the bacteria that we do need. Here here with your comment about not watching the adverts Rhonda.

  9. Solid advice. At least at home we can take precautions and know that our food is good and clean, who knows at the restuarants and fast-food places.

    I am really bothered by all the antibacterial products, whatever happened to good old-fashioned soap.


  10. I agree with Helen's comment: you are far more likely to suffer a tummy-bug (or more serious food poisoning) after eating at a restaurant than at home. That has been my only experience with food poisoning so far. Restaurant staff are simply working too quickly and managing too much food at a time to give the same careful attention to hygiene that most home-makers can. Hand-washing is key!

    But also, we must not be paralyzed by fear- living a healthy life involves some risks. I still want to be able to enjoy my favorite restaurants, and not insist on visiting their kitchen first to inspect it!

  11. Sensible advice, and I totally agree that the peddlers of anti-bacterial products are shameless fear-mongers.

    But, as someone who handles food for a living, I would add that the standard advice from scientists and food safety experts is to let food preparation surfaces and utensils air dry, if possible. This usually means thinking ahead, and washing these surfaces and utensils well before you need to use them. Hence, it's really useful to get into the habit of washing these things as soon as you're finished with them - then they're bone dry when you next need them.

    Apparently people quite often run into trouble by drying surfaces and implements with tea-towels that aren't quite as clean or as dry as they think.

    A commonly-recommended alternative is to use disposable wipes - but air is much cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

    If anyone's interested, here's a PDF doc about tea towels in the food industry.

  12. I must chuckle, I've had food poisoning but it was at a restaurant. I've never gotten sick from home, though I have thrown out a few items that smelled funny or looked too off. Anyhoo, I think restaurants are far more dangerous.

  13. Hello Rhonda,

    I really agree with all you have said today.
    One thing that I have noticed over the last few years is that the fish shops quite often sell fish with the gut still in. I find this quite amazing as the fish sometimes takes 4 days from the time of catching to the table. Surely they must realize that the gut is the first part to go off. I have a feeling that it comes back to weight and money. Fish weigh more if the gut is still inside at point of sale and the poor consumer pays for it. I'm talking middle man here mostly. We do not eat fish bought from the fish monger as the big fellow is a keen fisherman and we only eat fresh fish we have caught ourselves with the exception of Atlantic Salmon which is a rare treat when we buy it. May I suggest anyone who likes fish and is concerned with this issue should buy filleted fish or leather jacket which when skinned automatically has the gut come away as well. This is just my personal opinion and I accept that others may feel differently.
    Have a lovely weekend to both you and Hanno.

    Blessings Gail

  14. I have a bit of a phobia when it comes to chicken - but only because my mother who was also a nurse raised us to be very careful with it. She taught us never to buy cold chicken/ham products (like sandwiches or salads) at a restaurant or cafe, and how to be careful when preparing it at home. We've never had any problems. There was a tv show on here recently about which soaps/cleaners/antibacterials where the most effective for cleaning your hands. They started with just plain water, then went to the soap and water, and then on to the other products. The results were that handwashing with soap was more effective than all the others, and that plain water worked better in some cases than the anti-bacterial handwashes!

  15. Having worked in the food industry I understand how difficult it can be to stay on top of hygiene while moving at superspeed to keep customers happy. Which is why I get very nervous when I see children (well I'm old enough to be their mother) serving me at the counter of a fast food restaurant with that vacant stare they all seem to have these days. I'd prefer to make our food at home, I feel much safer.

  16. interesting titbit about bacteria (oral) my a&p tutor told the class there are about 400 bacteria in your mouth and only 2 that are bad for you....again another ploy to get you to purchase products we dont need. soap and water is all that is needed to clean up nasties.
    i clean peoples houses for a living and cook a few meals for some, i dont wear gloves except for toilet, i wash my hands all the time, making sure i get up the arm beyond the wrist. ive never had food poisoning and ive never caused it. id be more wary of precooked foods. ive also worked on an organic farm where i made salads for market. they are prewashed in an organic bleach to kill any bacteria and our soil was tested regularly for listeria. but salads should again be washed and spun before eating and every other day while storing.

  17. Yay! Beep beep!! THANK you for saying those things. I took bacteriology in college, and know that the more people use anti-bacterial wipes EVERYWHERE the more resistant strains of bacteria we'll be left with. My bacteriology professor said ONLY take antibiotics when you HAVE to, and when you do, take the same kind every time.

    Both of these measures (not using anti-bacterial stuff in your life and not taking lots of antibiotics) means that when you DO get really sick, it'll be easy to kill whatever bacterial infection you have, 'cause the ones in your life have NOT been made into tough soldiers by killer liquids, but are total patsies. =)

    SO glad you said this.

  18. Rhonda,
    Once again a good post. This topic is coming up a lot lately due to contaminations in our foods, such as salmonella in eggs and e.coli in other foods that are sold at supermarkets. These rules listed are good ones to follow. And I agree that some of these companies are to blame for drilling this anti-bacterial stuff into our heads. We are really only breeding super viruses and bacteria. Also, reading through a lot of these comments, there are good suggestions in here. I also work in the food service industry and I have been ServeSafe certified in the past. If you go out to a restaurant to eat do not be afraid to ask your server about food quality assurances. You might think that we will not tell you the truth, but more likely than not we will, because we do care about the way food is handled. We eat it too! Thanks for the post.

  19. I have to weigh in on the theory of outside food being more dangerous. The only time I have ever had food poisoning was from a soft serve ice cream at a fast food outlet. That was the last time I ever bought soft serve!
    Great advice, Rhonda, knowing your sources and using common sense is the best protection in this regard.

  20. I can sort of relate, as I'm a bit obsessive-compulsive about cleaning up after I've handled/prepared raw chicken. I'm always convinced I'll somehow miss a spot, even though I'm careful not to touch things willy-nilly with chicken on my hands, etc, and then we'll all get food poisoning. My solution, honestly, has been to cook it less frequently--and that goes for other meat as well. Better for my peace of mind, better for our wallets, better for our health.

  21. Great post. There is surely a lot of hysteria about food, and normal common-sense procedures are all you need to keep safe.

    One other tip: when you are cleaning a cutting board on which you have been preparing raw protein, use hot water, soap, and a scrubber of some kind.

    Bad bacteria quickly form a strong sticky film. Using a stiff steel wool or scrubbing pad along with your hot water and soap will get rid of that much better than anything else. You don't need bleach. You just need to scrub!

  22. My advice for the lady: don't eat meat! If you eat well, you won't miss any nutrients, you will still have delicious meals, no animals will be killed, and you will help the environment as well! And no more anxiety, either ;)

  23. The only two times I had food poisoning was at that fancy Asian restaurant in town... and I am far from being a thorough cleaner at home.

    (I wash my hands and my vegetables, though, and use clean knives. *g*)

  24. Joining in with everyone else in agreement with you, Rhonda. You always have good sensible advice for us, but today especially good.

  25. I had the same problem, to the point where I was constantly having panic attacks about food and eating and lost about 20lbs in a couple of weeks (I can afford to lose it but still...). I was concerned about my health, my family was concerned and I literally would run out the door in fits of panic because of my OCD. It was severe enough that I went on medication and I am in counseling. I am much better, but

    I still worry about things. I can't eat my canned goods (many of them went bad and I fear botulism). I wash my hands a lot more than I need to when cooking and go through a lot of forks (at a BBQ this summer, someone was putting bloody burgers on the BBQ with the same spatula he was putting them on the buns with, still bloody! I wouldn't let my family eat any).

    I think there is a difference between being safe and being fear-filled or obsessive. It is prudent to be safe, it is unwise to fear food. I agree with knowing where your food comes from. I try to buy all local and organic from trusted sources where possible. We are a very low income family and if we can do it, most people can ;)

  26. I'm in the common sense camp. I clean my counter with soap and water and wash my hands before and during food processing, and after of course. I also rinse the food before using.

    I believe that there are more illnesses because of these disinfectant soaps and wipes. We do not need to be sterilized, not does everything we come in contact with.

  27. I have a member of my famly who has had food poisoning several times. And every time she has had it it is from the prepackaged foods from the grocery store or fast food restaurant. But that hasn't stopped her from eating processd foods. I grew up on them but as a homemaker who cooks all things from scratch our famly has never had food poisoning.

    We set a higher standard when we cook than the "controlled" enviroments that companies have.


  28. I agree with all the comments here. I remember reading an article in the NY Times a while back that mentioned something about how kids who grow up with pets have fewer illnesses in general - mostly because the exposure to germs and dirt is actual beneficial to the immune system! Not entirely related to the food phobia, but certainly calls into question all those anti-bacterial products!

    However, I do want to say something to the reader who wrote in . . . true phobias can be extremely debilitating and not always possible to shake, even when one is faced with the good common sense provided here. At some point, if the phobia is moving toward panic and obsession, it is important to speak to one's doctor. Such disorders can be treated - with behavioral therapy, medications, or a combination, and life becomes good again. I speak from experience here!

  29. I've had salmonella. From a home cooked meal in a vegetarian household. It was from a fried egg.

    Apparently it's only in serious cases they even hand out anti-biotics for it anymore. And to be honest I shook it off quite well once I took things to help firm things up and hydrate myself.

    The advert about "germy" soap dispensors drive myself and my boyfriend up the wall. Why does it matter if you're about to wash your hands?!?


  30. I think this is a great and helpful post, but what struck me the most was the level of paranoia your reader is dealing with. I'm wondering if she's considered being evaluated for OCD? She just seems to have a paralyzingly strong fear that might be more than just an overzealous food-safety consciousness? Just something to think about, maybe.

  31. Hi again Rhonda,
    On thinking again about your really good post. I remember my grandmother after scrubbing her bread board made from wood, always placed it in the sun for a couple of hours. As she would say "to let the sun do its job". I do the same and I also don't have a clothes dryer for that very same reason. I feel the sun and fresh air are essential parts of our daily life and hygeine.
    Blessings Gail

  32. OK, I'm probably going to sound a little bit strange here, but I really don't get that paranoid about food germs anymore. Yes, I wash my hands after handling raw meat, thaw it out in the microwave or refrigerator and cook immediately, use hot, soapy water when washing dishes, etc. etc., but after living and working for five years in Central Asia, where they sell their meat hanging outdoors in the bazaars with flies sitting on the meat at times, I only recall getting sick maybe once, and that was when I had switched off of an antibiotic I had been on for my skin to another medication.

    People say that I also had a strong stomach, but most people I worked with there, and almost all the people who had lived there their entire lives, rarely got any kind of stomach bug. Their hygience standards were certainly in need of improvement - for a napkin, they shared a community towl, and some women said they didn't like washing their dishes in the water because it stripped all the grease off. Many of them also didn't have refrigerators, and would simply cover their leftovers with a plate and make sure to eat them by the next morning. Again, no sickness. I'm not saying that we shouldn't care about these things, but I definitely think that part of the reason we get so sensitive is that we are so careful sometimes. Hope I didn't just scare all the food safety people :).

  33. Sunday morning, hi Rhonda, hope you're ok there, I've heard on the news about the wild weather up your way. It's pretty darn wet here (Murwillumbah) but without the wind and storms SE Qland seems to be getting.

    Good weather for staying in, staying dry and knitting :)

  34. I agree with you 100%. In all the years of eating my mother's home cooking, my grandmother's home cooking and my own, I never had food food poisoning. Not once. Yet in the four years I've been living in the UK, I've had food poisoning at least 7 times, from mild to fairly severe cases, from eating food at restaurants or cafes. The only exception is the one time I got food poisoning at a friend's house from home cooked food. It turned out in this particular case that I have a food sensitivity and it wasn't actual food poisoning.

    I guess the lesson is that the safest food you can possibly eat is the food you prepare yourself.

    And by the way, my mother and grandmother have never used anything for cleaning their counters, cutting boards and so on but good old fashioned soap and water.

  35. My mother used to keep things for longer than the Use By date and always said, if it's "past it" you will know, but we get used to going by current Rules. I recently bought a ready-made Cottage Pie in my Co-op (better than nothing when busy) and it had a two week Eat By date on it. I wouldn't keep home-made Cottage Pie in my fridge for a fortnight and then eat it happily. Either it was chock-full of preservative (and no meat) or I am being cautious. I think there must be a happy medium somewhere :-)

  36. Thank you for this post, I so absolutely have the same opinion! And it's very stimulating for me. I'm just functioning on my opinion with this issue.
    Baby Food

  37. This reminds me of an ad I've seen recently. It's an automatic soap dispenser for the home that works on movement sensors, so you don't have to touch the pump in order to get soap.

    This is to me the hight of stupidity. Your just about to wash your hands in any case! Why worry about germs the moment before you wash your hands, which should take care of germs in any case?

    Someone please explain to me the thinking behind this, I just don't get it.



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