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Food hygiene

This information is for ordinary domestic cooks. Professional cooks and caterers obviously have far higher standards of hygiene. This advice is also aimed at a British audience. Anyone else is welcome to extract any information they can.

General hygiene

If you have poor hygiene when handling food, then you risk stomach upsets for yourself or anyone who eats the food. The stomach upsets (and no, I am not going to go into details!) are caused by bacteria. You can never make a kitchen sterile, however hard you try. You have to accept that there is a certain level of bacteria in the kitchen. Luckily, the human body is designed to cope with a certain level of bacteria. You need to keep the amount of bacteria in your food at a safe level.

Some food may already be infected with dangerous bacteria, such as most raw meat which must be cooked before it is safe to eat. Other food such as cooked meat may have low levels of bacteria, but must be stored correctly to stop the bacteria growing. You must also prevent cross-contamination, where food that was previously OK comes into contact with something containing bacteria.

The temperature of food

Food is safest when very hot or very cold. Don't keep food at a luke-warm or room temperature for a long time. This will encourage any bacteria in it to grow, which is a bad idea. Bought food and left-overs should be put quickly in the fridge.

Make sure that your fridge is cool enough. Milk is a good indicator. If the milk in your fridge is going off too quickly, then your fridge is not working well enough. Check if you can reduce the temperature, or if it needs defrosting, or even if you need a new fridge. A fridge will only keep food fresh for a few days. Freezing food keeps it longer, although not for ever. You should defrost food before cooking (apart from some ready-made dishes). If you don't then it will take longer to cook, and you risk the centre being uncooked, or even still frozen, which is very unpleasant indeed. You can defrost food at room temperature but you can also defrost in an ordinary fridge. It takes longer, perhaps 24 hours, or more for something large.

If food is to be cooked, make sure that it is cooked enough. If you are reheating food or cooking a ready-made dish, the food must be piping hot. This means that all the food is cooked to above boiling point - the 'piping' means the whistling noise that steam makes as it rises through food. The food in the centre must be cooked as well, so you may need to stir while cooking. Some ready-made dishes say they can be cooked from frozen, and then it is especially important to check that the centre is hot.

Food contamination

Some types of food have more bacteria than others. They are cooked to make them safe, but while they are raw they will contaminate everything they touch. Raw meat is an especial danger. Make sure that it is stored on its own shelf in the fridge, and that no meat juices drip onto other food. Meat has to touch the chopping board and knife used to prepare it, and your hands are likely to touch it as well. You must wash all of these before using them for anything else. Some people have a separate board and knife for meat. Others (like me) have been known to turn a board over to use the clean side if we can't be bothered to wash it!

Apart from food, there are likely to be other sources of bacteria in a kitchen. Keep your food preparation surfaces, storage areas and kitchen utensils clean. Wash your hands, particularly before touching food that will be eaten uncooked, or after touching raw meat. Make sure that any drying-up clothes, towels and cleaning cloths are washed regularly as well.

However, while these rules are all true, most cooks (including me) tend to cut corners. Hands are dirty things, and how ever many times you wash them, they still get dirty again (and how clean was that towel that you used to dry your hands?) Yet cooks tend to use their hands to handle food directly, and taste food, and lick their fingers. Food dropped on the floor is of course contaminated. But Americans have a delightful '5 second' rule - that if you pick it up and eat it within 5 seconds, then it is safe. This is unfortunately not true. But if it looks clean, it's so tempting. So it's not right to do these things, but we all tend to.

The following sections deal with specific bacteria that infect certain types of meat.

Salmonella in chicken and eggs

Chickens may be infected with bacteria called salmonella. Always cook chicken meat so it is well done. This means that when you run a skewer into the meat, the juices run clear rather than red. If you do this, the salmonella bacteria will be killed.

Eggs may also have salmonella. This is more of a problem. No-one wants to eat under-cooked chicken meat, but eggs may be better soft-cooked and some recipes need raw egg. In the UK, there is much less salmonella in eggs than there used to be, but there may be salmonella in imported eggs. Salmonella is more dangerous for vulnerable groups, such as young children and the elderly. So use British eggs, and if the eaters are young or old, cook eggs well. But for the rest of us, well, I'll take the risk!

E. coli in beef

E. coli has also caused problems in Britain. It can contaminate the outside of pieces of beef. Mostly, this doesn't matter. When you grill a steak or roast a joint, the bacteria on the outside of the meat get killed by the heat, even if the meat is pink inside. However, mince (or ground meat) is more of a problem. In the mincing process, the outside parts of the meat get mixed in with the rest, so the whole of the mince can be contaminated. This means that you need to cook mince well, so it is grey throughout rather than pink in the middle. Unfortunately this tends to make it rather tasteless, but mince dishes are often well-flavoured with other ingredients.

BSE in beef

A few years ago, some British cattle had a disease called BSE. This became associated with a human disease called CJD, which caused the brain to decay, and was lethal. It was found that both diseases were caused by an agent called prions. These are not bacteria, and what is worse, they cannot be killed by heat. CJD was always a rare disease, and now BSE has been eradicated from British cattle, so British beef is safe to eat.

Pork

Pork is vulnerable to parasites. Pork is quite safe as long as it is well-cooked. This means that when you run a skewer into the meat, the juices run clear rather than red. Still, don't feed it to people who don't want to eat it!

Meat that can be safely under-cooked

As you can see from the above, some meats must be well-cooked to be safe. However, some meats may be underdone, so they are pink or even red in the middle. Lamb may be underdone. Beef (apart from mince) is usually underdone, and this is called rare. Some people dislike underdone meat and others prefer slightly pink lamb and strongly dislike grey beef. So it's a good idea to find what people's preferences are.

Shellfish

Shellfish can certainly give you an upset stomach as they can be contaminated by what they eat. Any shellfish you buy from reputable shops should be raised in clean water and be safe, but don't catch your own shellfish to eat unless you know what you are doing.

Shellfish in their shells are cooked alive. That means that their shells should be closed before they are cooked. Discard any with open shells, as they are dead and might be rotten. The shells open as they are cooked. After cooking, discard any with shells that are still closed, as those were dead as well. You can buy already cooked shellfish in their shells, such as mussels, and so their shells should all be open. If any are closed, throw them away.

Botulism

Botulism is caused by a toxin produced by bacteria rather than by the bacteria itself. This means, unfortunately, that it cannot be killed by cooking. It can be lethal. However, botulism is rare, so don't worry about it.

Other food

Bacteria in fruit, vegetables and cereals are less dangerous than those in meat. You are supposed to wash or peel fruit and vegetables that you are going to eat raw. I must admit that I don't usually bother unless they are covered with earth or have unpleasant skins. Of course, it does depend where the food comes from.

Keep an eye on 'best before' and 'eat by' dates on packs. Some people are fussier than others, but if you eat something when the shop has told you not to, then it's your own fault if you get ill. By the way, 'eat by' means that, while 'best before' is just advice. If you find yourself throwing a lot of food away, then buy less (no - I'm not being sarcastic - it's easy to buy too much in a supermarket, especially if you go for special offers).

If the food smells bad or looks bad or mouldy, then it is bad. Again, some of us cut the mouldy bits off cheese and eat the rest, but that is at our own risk. Bad smelling food should certainly be chucked in the bin. Keep an eye on left-overs, they won't keep for ever.

When buying ready-made dishes, if they are frozen, keep them frozen until you need to cook or eat them. Do not refreeze after defrosting them. If you buy tinned food, make sure that there are no punctures in the tin, and that the tin is not bulging.

Allergies and illnesses connected with food

Food hygiene is related mostly to illnesses caused by bacteria, but there are other ways that your health can suffer through food. See 'Allergies and illnesses connected with food' under .

And finally

You have probably realised that I don't always follow food hygiene strictly, and I'm not dead yet! But I am careful about cooking meat, and throw away bad smelling food, and avoid cross-contamination. You must make your own decisions about what is dangerous.