Food Safety Part 1

Eating food kills!  That doesn’t mean by way of overeating and obesity, causing heart attacks, it means by food poisoning.  Food poisoning kills several hundred people in the UK every year and several thousand in the USA.  How can this happen in the 21st century?  Food poisoning and Foodborne disease are more prevalent now than they have ever been.  Do you really know what is in the food you eat?  Do you want to know?  Read on…..


Allergen: Sulphites


Allergen: Sulphur Dioxide


Allergen: Fish


The Co-op is recalling three of its Truly Irresistible Indian Cooking Sauces, because the acidity levels are too low. As the acidity levels are too low, this means micro-organisms may grow and the sauces will be past their best before the ‘best before’ date that appears on the jar.



Coca Cola Hellenic Bottling Company has withdrawn certain batches of Dr Pepper in Northern Ireland, because of high levels of benzoic acid.



Tesco has withdrawn two batches of its own-brand wholegrain brown rice because they might be contaminated with insects.


Safe food is defined as food which is free from contaminants and will not cause illness or harm.

Food poisoning is an acute illness (quick onset) caused by the consumption of contaminated or poisonous food.

There are four classes of contaminants: Microbial, Chemical, Physical and Allergenic.  All have been implicated in making people ill and causing death.

Food hygiene is defined as all practices and procedures that food handlers adopt to ensure the safety of food.  Poor food hygiene practices are a major cause of food poisoning, not just in the commercial world of cafes, restaurants, take-outs and pre-prepared TV dinners, but also in our homes.


Implicated food vehicles and causative pathogen/ toxin in foodborne outbreaks (1992-2009) Health Protection Agency




The figures above are the reported cases.  But what about the unreported cases, the cases we don’t report because we only suffered 1 bout of diarrhoea or the occasional feeling of nausea.

If you suffer any signs or symptoms of food poisoning, in the majority of cases, it is food poisoning.

Every year the Food Standards Agency sends out questionnaires to a selection of the UK asking if they have had food poisoning during the year and not reported it.  A staggering 10-14% of those asked did not report.  This equates to 7.5 to 10 million cases of food poisoning in the UK.   A similar exercise is undertaken in the USA where 30 million cases are unreported.  So why the increase, rather than decrease over the past 15 or more years?

  • Increase in the purchase of cheap, intensively farmed poultry. Poultry farmed in closed buildings.  14 birds reared in an area of 1 square metre.  Each bird pecking at each other, at each others urine and faeces, causing infection.  That is not to say that free range, organically raised poultry are free from disease, far from it.  Free range states that chickens have access to the outside, not necessarily that they take that option!  Even if they reach outside, they peck at soil and faeces, again causing infection.
  • Intensive feeding of farm animals was responsible for starting BSE in the 1980s. Farmers feeding dead, scrapie (a TSE disease) infected sheep’s’ carcasses to cattle was the probable cause.  If farmers leave their sheep and cattle to graze naturally, it takes longer for them to reach maturity than if they are fed supplements.  Farmers have to get their animals to market as quickly as possible.  It makes good business sense, this way they will make a profit more quickly and cash flows.  However, in order to bring their produce to market sooner they use supplemental feeds based on high protein, usually meat or fish derivatives.  From an ethical point of view they are feeding vegetarians animal based protein?  From a business point of view it also makes good sense to use the cheapest animal food they can source.  Unfortunately a lot of the cheap food is not sterilised to kill microbial contaminants.  This is transferred to the animals and to us.
  • There has been a dearth of ethnic food outlets sprouting up throughout all rural communities. The problem here is not one of race or ethnicity; it is not being able to provide food hygiene courses in their native tongue, which is not usually English.  Many large cities will have training providers, but not the rural areas, where the eateries are located.  Although food hygiene books are provided in the majority of non-English languages, people will not learn just from books, they must attend an interactive lesson or online course.  Books are so easily tossed to one side to gather dust.
  • Mobile catering trailers are a big source of bacterial infection, both burger vans and ethnic vehicles. Before you buy any food from the trailer, step back and check out the state of the van to begin with.  Is it clean, inside and out? Do the staff wear protective clothing? – As a minimum their external clothing must be completely covered with a white coat/overalls, apron, trousers and head-wear.  Is the protective clothing clean?  Are they clean?

Do they have hand-washing facilities?  Do they use them?  They must wash their hands after handling raw produce such as raw meat and eggs.  If they handle these and don’t wash their hands they will cross-contaminate your food with pathogenic bacteria, which cause illness and can kill in some circumstances.  E coli 0157 is the most virulent serotype of E coli and is present in raw meat, especially beefburgers.

E coli 0157 and Campylobacter is present in the faeces that is present on egg shells.  E coli cause renal failure and is a big killer with susceptible groups, such as the young and elderly.  In 1996 over 20 elderly people died in Wishaw, Scotland, in the World’s biggest outbreak of E coli 0157 food poisoning.  Campylobacter, which is present in poultry and birds (domestic and wild), is the UK’s biggest cause of diarrhoea.

Make sure they are using a digital temperature probe to test the food is cooked to the correct temperature to kill the pathogens (at least 75 °C).  Do they have smoking, drinking or toilet breaks and if so do they wash their hands (and dry them) before they commence work?  Are they continually touching parts of their body, including hair, face and mouth and not washing their hands?

Do they have food hygiene/safety certificates and are they less than 3 years old?  If they do not adhere to the minimum personal hygiene and food safety practices as above, then walk away or you will become ill after eating their food.

One recent example of a problem burger trailer started with me asking for a cup of tea.  You would think nobody could mess that up!  Wrong!  After I ordered the tea, the female staff member broke an egg onto the griddle before serving me.  After breaking the egg, she did not wash her hands and picked up a polystyrene cup, to pour hot water into.  Her egg-contaminated hands came into contact with the rim of my cup.  Eggs have faecal contamination on the shell, and after breaking, hands must be washed thoroughly.  She handled money from several customers and, without washing her hands (money holds pathogens), handled bread rolls.

I noticed that she wore a dark coloured apron (light coloured would be better as stains would be easier to see and it could be changed more often).  There was not any headwear being worn, which is not life threatening and you don’t mind hair or scalp particles in your food.  The main danger from exposed hair and skin is S aureus, which require several hours’ incubation on high risk cold food to cause a problem.  As all food being sold was hot, it did not pose a serious food safety hazard.

She placed several raw slices of bacon on the griddle with her bare hands and dipped her finger tips into a bowl of, what appeared to be, water, and dried her hands in a linen towel.  She picked up several raw beef burgers and placed these on the griddle to cook.  The burgers were separated with waxed paper disks.  After placing the burgers on the hot plate to cook, she crumpled up the paper disks and threw them into the onboard bin.  Without washing her hands, she wiped them in the same towel she had previously used.  Next, she used that same towel to wipe down internal work surfaces, servery, counter and front fascia. Aaaagh!!  Beefburgers contain E coli 0157 pathogens.  These are killer bacteria.  A normal healthy adult might be lucky and escape with severe diarrhoea.  More susceptible customers, such as elderly and very young, could suffer kidney failure and possibly death.

  • Pre-prepared foods such as ready meals, TV dinners, desserts, etc are prepared out of our control. Do you really know what has been included in the preparation, can you trust the ingredients list, and can you guarantee the personal hygiene of the food handler?  My background as a chef gives me adequate knowledge to prepare my own meals from raw materials.  I know what goes into the preparation and cooking.  But what about the raw materials?  That’s one chink in my food preparation armoury.
  • Barbecues are a major source of food poisoning every year. Here we have two problems.  One is the handling of raw and ready to eat food.  If there is one thing you must remember about food it is this: all raw meat contains food poisoning bacteria (pathogens).  This is without exception.  Meat is prepared in abattoirs, which are not the most sanitary of facilities.  There is a lot of splashing and spillages from intestinal fluids and faeces of the animals being prepared for the table.  These residues contaminate the prepared carcasses.

If raw meat is handled and one’s hands are not washed, the meat juices, along with the pathogens, can be transferred to ready to eat food, (bread roles for example), and cause illness.  Food tends to cook quickly on a barbecue, especially the outside, but not the inside, not enough to kill pathogens.  Foods must be cooked to the right temperature to kill bacteria or illness will ensue.

  • More bacteria variants are mutating, causing more illnesses than ever before. The more chemicals we use to try to destroy them, the more they develop immunity to the chemicals.
  • We tend not to let our children play in insanitary conditions, such as in mud. We feed them highly processed food, which is totally devoid of bacteria.  We are not allowing them to develop immunity to pathogens.
  • When we buy ready to eat chilled food from an outlet, it must be kept chilled. Examples are: ready to eat cold meat, filled rolls/sandwiches/baguettes, scotch eggs, pork pies.  These foods will contain pathogens, in small numbers, from the food handlers, customers, environment, etc.  They will also contain spores from certain pathogens.  If the food is not kept cold, the spores will germinate and start to grow as bacteria, the bacteria already present will also grow.  This growth will then cause illness, even if the food is placed in the fridge, on arriving at home.  The damage is done, it is too late.
  • There are less chemical preservatives in foods than there used to be. Scientists have found and are still finding that certain chemical additives can cause diseases such as cancer.  Manufacturers strive to use more natural preservatives such as sugar, salt, vinegar, lemon/lime juice, herbs, and spices to prevent decay.

So what should we do?

  • Cheap poultry is a good source of cheap protein, especially for families who cannot afford more expensive protein. Cheap poultry will continue to be produced until the market dictates otherwise.  Ensure the meat is cooked to the right temperature to kill the pathogens.  Check the thickest part of the meat to ensure the temperature is constant throughout.
  • Intensively fed animals will still be produced as families look for cheaper cuts of meat. Again any pathogens will be killed by adequate cooking.
  • More effort by countries governments to fund courses for ethnic food outlets should be encouraged. Whilst I am on the subject of ethnic outlets, please beware of the rogue kebab takeaways.  Kebab meat (lamb or chicken) is raw meat; it is therefore a harbinger of pathogens.  The kebab meat is placed on a skewer which rotates in front of a heat source.  The only part of the meat to be cooked is the outside surface.  When the meat is sliced it is still partly raw, therefore containing bacteria.  The outlet should now place the shavings of meat on a griddle to finish cooking.  If not, and the meat is served straight away, it contains pathogens and will cause illness.  If you drink alcohol before you order the kebab, be especially aware!  Alcohol reduces your immunity to food poisoning and the end result could be twice as bad!  The other problem with kebabs is the exo and enterotoxins present in the meat, which is constantly heated and chilled, allowing the toxins to develop.  The toxins give rise to fever, vomiting and diarrhoea.
  • Prepare your own food from raw materials. Cut out the middle person who might contaminate your food.
  • If you handle raw foods during barbeques, wash your hands before handling other foods such as bread rolls. Ensure the right temperature is achieved before serving food.  Check the thickest part of the food.
  • Avoid using chemicals wherever possible. The best disinfectant (a product which kills bacteria) I know is very hot water, for example straight from a kettle.
  • Let our children develop immunity to pathogens. Let them play outdoors (under supervision); feed them freshly prepared foods, especially raw foods such as salads which, although containing no valuable nutritional value apart from water and fibre, have many naturally occurring bacteria.
  • Keep chilled food cold, either by packing the food in thermal boxes with ice packs or mixing your frozen foods with your chilled foods in the same bag.
  • Check labels on containers to see what storage conditions are required. It either has to be refrigerated after opening or retained in a cool storage area, such as a kitchen cupboard.

Supermarkets are recalling food products almost on a daily basis due to contamination or mis-labelling.  Food poisoning is on the increase due to incorrect handling of chilled food, intensive farming/feeding, language barriers with ethnic eateries, BBQs cause major problems, eating out more, eating more pre-prepared foods, more bacterial mutations.  Good housekeeping and a common sense approach to eating can help prevent many cases.

Dehydration kills many people every year, because clean potable water cannot be provided.  Fresh fish, if not cooked correctly, can cause serious parasitic infection.  Manufacturers have deliberately poisoned food and murdered people for monetary gain.  A major water company poisoned a town’s water supply causing many to allegedly suffer the indignity of Alzheimer’s disease and death.