Background: How to prevent foodborne illness and food spoilage

Links to activities: spot the mistake video, food sort, and how clean is your kitchen.

Food spoilage is the deterioration of the colour, texture and flavour of food. It can be caused by many things, including microbes.

Microbes that cause foodborne illness may or may not cause food spoilage. Salmonella bacteria do not change the appearance, smell or taste of contaminated food.

There are four key ways you can prevent food poisoning and food spoilage (sometimes referred to as the 4Cs of food hygiene):

  • Cleaning – including ‘cleaning as you go’ during food preparation to avoid the build-up of mess and prevent bacteria from spreading.
  • Cooking food - food should usually be cooked until it has reached 70°C and stayed at that temperature for 2 minutes. General advice is that white meat/mince should be steaming hot and cooked all the way through (juices run clear). More detailed advice for different food can be found on the Food Standards Agency website.
  • Chilling - storing food correctly, including cooling it down quickly to stop microbes from multiplying. Refrigerators should be kept ≤4°C.
  • (Preventing) cross-contamination - preventing harmful microbes found on food from spreading to other foods (for example via our hands or kitchen utensils) and causing illness when those foods are eaten.

One of the key moments for hygiene is when handling and preparing raw foods, particularly poultry.

  • Whilst preparing raw poultry for cooking, harmful microbes can be spread to the chopping board, and kitchen surfaces, utensils, hands and clothes.
  • Immediately after preparation, surfaces must be cleaned and disinfected and utensils cleaned and rinsed.
  • Cleaning cloths must be rinsed in detergent and running water and then dried; hands must be washed with soap and water.
  • Remember that you should not wash raw chicken or other meats before cooking them, as this can splash microbes onto surfaces or other foods and increase the risk of foodborne illness.

Did you know? Eggs are best kept in the fridge as they last longer; this can prevent the growth of Salmonella.

Storing food in the fridge should be done correctly to avoid cross-contamination. The image below provides information on where different types of food should be stored.

Cartoon image of fridge, with labels showing where food should be stored. Pre-prepared food (e.g. salad) on top, cooked meat should be covered and kept from raw meat, some food such as jam will need to be stored in fridge once opened, raw meat and fish should be covered and kept on bottom shelf, fruit and vegetables should be stored in the drawers at the bottom of the fridge.

Image taken from e-Bug “Beat the Bugs” pack.

Reheating your food more than once allows multiple opportunities for harmful microbes to grow.

  • Bacteria grows best at the temperature “danger zone” (between 5°C and 60° C). Food will be at this temperature at each cooling and heating stage, therefore it is important that food is only reheated once.
  • Some bacteria can produce toxins and spores. These are parts of the microbe that can survive cooking temperatures and make us ill.

Top tip - When reheating food, only reheat the portion you plan to eat and keep the rest refrigerated.

Labels placed on foods are used to determine when it is safe to eat the food, or when the quality of the food is at its best.

  • “Use by” refers to when the food is still safe to eat. Food should not be consumed after this date.
  • “Best before” refers to when the food will be at its best quality, but it is worth noting that consumption after this date will still be safe.

The public have varying views on their perception of “use by” and “best before” dates. Watch this video by Food Standards Scotland to find out more.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

A PDF summary of the video can be found in the downloads section below.

Did you know? The UK government’s food waste champion Ben Elliot described that £20 billion worth of food is binned per year, which averages to £500 per household each year.

Child friendly resources on food hygiene

e-Bug, in collaboration with Fun Kids popular children’s radio station, has developed animated audio episodes on hygiene and infections. Episode 6 on “Looking after Yourself” teaches how chicken is covered in Campylobacter and can spread foodborne illness during food preparation:

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

This is also available as a podcast.

Please see the links below in see also for further child-friendly resources.

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