Chicken biryani is one of those ubiquitous dishes immensely liked by most. The possibility of faecal contamination — human or animal — in your favourite lunch order certainly cannot be a relishable thought.

It thus comes as a shocker that five out of six samples of chicken biryani, collected from across the State and tested by the Food Quality Monitoring Laboratory at Konni, have been found to be contaminated by high levels of E.coli bacteria.

The presence of E.coli in food is a general indication of direct or indirect contamination by faecal matter and a sure-fire indication of the poor hygiene practices of food handlers.

The results of the evaluation of microbial quality of various ready-to-eat foods in Kerala, done by the Konni-based Food Quality Monitoring Lab, was presented at a seminar on Safe Food Business Practices, organised by the Commissionerate of Food Safety here on recently.

The study, carried out between September 2011 and May 2013, evaluated the microbial load in 44 ready-to-eat food items from various food business operators across the State.

Of the 134 samples of food items analysed, 22.38 per cent (30 samples) were found to have the presence of E.coli bacteria above the tolerance limit.

E.coli is an organism which is normally present in the intestinal tract of mammals and is thus a faecal indicator organism. Its presence in ready-to-eat foods – fully cooked or raw edible foods like salads – is an indication of poor hygiene and sanitation or inadequate heat treatment.

The tolerance limit for E.coli is less than 100 cfu/g for raw food and less than 10 cfu/g for cooked food.

Some of the popular food items tested by the lab included green salads (all samples of which were contaminated by E.coli), fish curry, chicken curry, parotta, puffs, pizza, vada, dosa, sambar, chutney, among many other such items.

The samples were purchased from hotels across Kerala, in packets provided by eateries, which were immediately transferred to sterile polythene bags and to insulated chilled boxes and transferred to lab immediately.

The researchers have pointed out that poor sanitation is largely responsible for much of the contamination in food from food handlers.

The levels of hygiene and sanitation inside hotel kitchens is of prime importance because the presence of a toilet near the hotel kitchen poses a serious risk of E.coli contamination in food preparation.

Food handlers need to be made aware of the importance of maintaining personal hygiene as well as hygienic habits.