Don’t Let Food Poisoning Ruin Your Summer

Did you know food poisoning is more common in summer than at any other time of the year? This is because bacteria grow faster in hot and humid weather. Use these simple tips and don’t let food poisoning ruin your summer.

Are you at risk?

Some of us are more at risk of food poisoning. Vomiting and diarrhoea can be quite serious for pregnant women, children, older people and people whose immune systems are not working properly. Causes range from poor food handling, preparation and storage to eating high-risk foods (such as listeria).

Be food safe

Our best bet for avoiding illness is to practise proper food safety. That means storing, preparing, handling and cooking food correctly. Keep food out of the temperature danger zone – between 5°C and 60°C – so bacteria can’t grow. Don't hang around when you're shopping – the longer food is out, the more germs there are! Take food home straight away and don’t leave it on the bench! Hint: take a cooler bag or esky with some ice packs to keep food chilled for the trip home.

It's in our hands

Whether you are preparing, eating or handling food always wash your hands thoroughly. Bacteria that cause food poisoning, such as Shigella and Giardia, can spread through human contact. If you’re outdoors and there is no place to wash, take some hand sanitiser or some disposable wipes. Use separate tea towels in the kitchen – one for drying hands and one for drying dishes.

Beware of risky foods

Typical foods for summer celebrations are some of the riskiest. Watch out for raw meat (especially poultry) and cooked meat dishes (such as casseroles, curries and lasagne.) Others include – dairy products, egg dishes (e.g. quiche), smallgoods (watch those festive hams!), seafood, cooked rice, cooked pasta, prepared salads (even those containing fruit) and ready-to-eat foods.

Hint: high-risk food that has been left in the temperature danger zone (between 5°C and 60°C) for two hours can be reheated, refrigerated or eaten. Longer than two hours (but less than four) – eat immediately. After four hours – forget it. Put it straight in the bin!

Wash fruit and vegetables

Most of us don’t know exactly where and how raw food is grown. Soils can contain harmful bacteria and viruses. Pesticide residue or toxins from mould may also be present. Get into the habit of washing fruit and vegetables before cooking and eating. Wash under running water and dry with a paper towel. Always follow label instructions on any pre-packaged food such as salads, and eat them by the use-by date.

Pesky bugs and rodents

Rodents and bugs such as flies, mosquitoes and cockroaches tend to thrive in humid conditions. If you must use pesticides, make sure you put all food away or cover it first. Clean cooking surfaces and utensils after spraying. The best way to prevent bugs and other nasties is to put food away as soon as you can – don’t leave scraps on benches. Hint: cockroaches need water to survive, if you remove their water source, they’re less likely to want to hang around!

How about lunch?

A homemade lunch is not only healthy, but also good for the household budget. Get those soggy sandwiches and limp salads looking fresh by investing in a lunch box that’s insulated or has a freezer pack. Lunch needs to be chilled. Prepare the night before and store in the fridge or freezer. Remember, keep perishable foods (dairy products, eggs and sliced meats) cool and try to eat them within four hours. For refreshments, frozen water is best and helps keep food chilled. Hint: don’t pack food that has just been cooked – it goes off quickly.

Wining and dining

We all love catching up with friends and family. If you happen to be eating out or getting takeaway, know the risks. The same rules apply whether eating at home or out – hot foods need to be kept hot (at 60°C or hotter) and cold foods cold (at 5°C or less). If the place looks dirty, chances are their food hygiene practices are not up to scratch. Food should be fresh, crockery and cutlery, clean and dry. All dishes at buffets or self-serve restaurants should have their own utensils. Be on the look out for pre-made food – if the food looks ‘tired’ it probably is. Be wary when taking home a ‘doggy bag’ – if in doubt, don’t eat it. Report any concerns to your local council or the Food Safety Hotline 1300 364 352.

Enjoy the outdoors

We all love a barbie or a picnic – if you enjoy being outdoors make sure you’re ready to enjoy your food too. Follow this basic rule – keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Do a bit of planning before heading outside – prepare salads and cut up any meat. Keep raw meat away from other food by storing it in an insulated cooler. Sealed containers are great for storing high-risk foods. Keep all food in the fridge until you’re ready to start serving or cooking and pack it away as soon as you’re finished! Don’t forget to use separate plates and utensils to handle raw food. If you’re travelling by car, keep your esky out of sunlight. Hint: use frozen drinks for ice packs.

Don't trust your senses

In ideal conditions, bacteria grow incredibly rapidly – one bacterium can multiply to a whopping two million in seven hours! Although food may look, smell and taste fine, it might be contaminated.

Be a happy camper

Unless you have access to a fridge, don’t take perishable food when camping – dry, UHT and canned foods are best. If you do have a cooler and want to take meat or pre-cooked meals, make sure they’re frozen. Frozen meat can be kept for two days and meals such as stews for one day. Pack a cooler with ice or ice packs. Cover your esky with a wet bag to promote evaporative cooling. Keep all food sealed and covered. If you’re not sure of the quality of the local water – boil it, take your own or use disinfecting tablets.

Casting a line?

There’s nothing better than the satisfaction you get eating fish you have caught. Unfortunately, not all of our waterways are clean – especially those in built up areas, such as Melbourne. Industrial chemicals can pollute our rivers and streams. Some freshwater fish can have high levels of mercury too. Take extra care if you are pregnant, have young children, are elderly or have low immunity.

Get to know our waterways

Be on the look out for areas affected by harmful algal blooms too. Steer clear of shellfish that has come into contact with algae toxins such as mussels, yabbies or crayfish. It is generally safe to eat fish caught in waters affected by harmful algae – make sure to wash it in clean water, gill and gut it. Only eat the flesh and put internal organs in the rubbish – don’t feed it to animals. Check with local councils or Emergency Victoria for the latest alerts. Remember, fish should be cooked until it flakes away easily with a fork. Don’t drink untreated water either.

Hint: report any concerns to the EPA on 1300 EPA VIC (1300 372 842).

Be food safe while travelling

If you're lucky enough to travel overseas, make sure to take all the necessary precautions. Drink bottled water and avoid ice in drinks. Be on the look out for eateries that practise safe hygiene – busy restaurants and hotels are best. If you do eat at street stalls, choose steaming hot food straight off the grill. Avoid raw food and eat fruit and vegetables that can be peeled. Stay away from shellfish and unpasteurised dairy products. Always practise good personal hygiene to avoid infections such as amoebiasis. Hint: remember this motto when travelling overseas – ‘cook it, peel it or leave it.’

Don't forget baby

We don’t want our little ones getting sick. If you’re breastfeeding – get to know how to store, thaw and heat breastmilk. If you’re bottle-feeding – sterilise all equipment until your baby is 12 months old. When using formula, follow the instructions on the label and always use fresh, boiled water. Prepare formula only when needed – one bottle at a time. Never use leftover formula. Don’t warm bottles in a microwave either as germs can grow. One way to warm bottles is to stand them in a container of hot (not boiling) water for 10 minutes. If going out, carry formula and sterile hot water separately.
Hint: for plane travellers – water does not come to full boil on airlines so take enough supplies.

Lost power?

Sometimes unfortunately, not everything goes to plan and we may have lost power due to a natural disaster or another cause. If this happens to you, food can only be kept unrefrigerated up to four hours. Remember in summer though, food can go off a lot quicker in the heat. If it’s no longer cold to touch, throw it out.

Got food poisoning?

Think you have food poisoning? See a doctor as soon as you can. Germs are highly contagious so don’t go to childcare, kinder, school or work until diarrhoea stops. If you think it may have been caused from eating at a local restaurant, cafe, shop or takeaway outlet, contact your local council. If you live in Victoria, contact the Food Safety Hotline on 1300 364 352 or