Food safety describes the handling, preparation, transport and storage of food in ways that prevent foodborne illness (food poisoning). Food can transmit disease from person to person as well as serve as a growth medium for bacteria that can cause food poisoning.
Food poisoning can be caused by both bacteria and viruses, although bacterial infections are more common. Some organisms produce a toxin which causes the illness even after the organism is no longer present. Some of the most common types of food poisoning bacteria are salmonella, staphylococcus, clostridium, shigelia, campylobacter and bacillus. The usual symptoms of food poisoning can be any of the following, either alone or in combination:
Foods can be contaminated during production, manufacture, cooking, holding (either heated or refrigerated), reheating, transport or by food handlers and their utensils. Some foods may be contaminated by bacteria before they are handled, for example foods that grow in the soil or have been in contact with dirty water (water from a septic tank or greywater).
Some foods are more susceptible to contamination than other foods, such as meats, seafood, dairy products and other food that requires refrigeration.
Bacteria require time to multiply to dangerous levels that may cause illness. The temperatures between 5°C to 60°C are optimal for bacterial growth and are known as the temperature danger zone. Foods that require refrigeration should be stored below 5°C and foods that are being served hot should be reheated or stored at temperatures greater than 60°C.
Insects, such as flies and cockroaches, and rodents, such as rats and mice, can spread bacteria to food when they crawl or walk over it.
Some of the food hygiene issues that are of particular concern in remote communities are:
Food poisoning is very easy to prevent if care is taken at all stages of preparation or production. For example:
Do not purchase goods with defects in packaging such as improper sealing, dented cans, foreign objects and signs of spoilage. This is particularly important when foods have been transported over long distances.
Foods with a 'best before' date can be sold after that date, provided the food is not damaged or it has not deteriorated or perished.
A 'use by date' must be displayed on foods that deteriorate and pose a significant health risk after a certain time. The 'use by date' tells us when the food is no longer safe to eat. Foods should not be sold after this date.
Storing foods correctly helps keep them safe and can also help retain their nutrient value, freshness, aroma and texture.
Storing foods in the refrigerator stops organisms from breeding and slows down the rate of chemical change in the food. The refrigerator temperature should be kept at 5°C or less, a freezer at -15°C (food should be ‘hard frozen'). Food in bain maries should be kept at a constant temperature of 60°C or above.
It is important to wash hands thoroughly before touching food, and to minimise the risk of contamination from clothing, jewellery, infections and illness.
Cross contamination occurs when organisms normally found on raw food move to cooked food.
All work surfaces, crockery, cutlery, cooking utensils and other equipment should be thoroughly cleaned and sanitised using warm water and detergent.
The environmental health worker has a vital role to play in terms of food safety. This role can include:
Environmental health workers do not have to manage food safety in private homes but they can help people and promote ways in which food can be kept safe.
The official guidelines for food safety in Australia is produced by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, a bi-national Government agency whose main responsibility is to develop and administer the 'Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code' (the Code). The code also contains requirements for foods such as; additives, labelling and GM foods.
Menzies School of Health Research (2000) Environmental health handbook: a practical manual for remote communities. Darwin: Menzies School of Health Research: http://appserv.menzies.edu.au/pls/portal30/docs/FOLDER/PUBLICATIONS/PAPERS/ENVIRONMENTAL_HEALTH_HANDBOOK.PDF
Territory Health Services (2002) The public health bush book. 2nd ed. [Darwin]: Territory Health Services : http://www.health.nt.gov.au/Health_Promotion/Bush_Book/index.aspx
Remote Indigenous Stores and Takeaways (RIST) Project. Healthy Fast Food. A resource for remote Indigenous stores and takeaways. Darwin 2008
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (2009) Food safety standards ( Australia only ). Retrieved from http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/thecode/foodsafetystandardsaustraliaonly/index.cfm
Queensland Health (2008) Food safety. Retrieved from http://www.health.qld.gov.au/ehworm/food/default.asp