How food becomes poison

Poor hygiene and careless handling of raw meat or poultry in kitchen can lead to cross contamination of other foods

Updated - January 13, 2023 10:34 am IST

Published - January 12, 2023 07:47 pm IST - THIRUVANANTHAPURAM

Image for representation only

Image for representation only | Photo Credit: S. Mahinsha

Food-borne illnesses happen because of the contamination of food by pathogens which can happen at any point of time from the production of raw material in farm, through supply and distribution or slaughter and packing (in the case of animal products), when these are processed into value-added products and make all the way to the kitchen in homes or commercial food establishments, where poor or careless handling can also introduce new pathogens into the food.

Poor hygiene and careless handling of raw meat or poultry in kitchen can lead to cross contamination of other foods through kitchen surfaces or cutting boards or drip juices or through contact when storing in refrigerator.

Food-borne disease risk factors are many. 

Product history (fresh sprouts and raw chicken are known to be fertile grounds for Salmonella spp. world over, while cattle may be carrying E. coli O157:H7), environmental factors (an example is water contaminated with animal or human faeces for irrigation of leafy vegetables), cross contamination through poor handling, improper cooking/holding temperatures, inadequate cooking, poor personal hygiene and health status of food handlers, and the presence of pests are some of the known risk factors that can turn food into a source of public health concern.

“It is through the understanding of some of these inherent risks, the knowledge of how bacteria interact with food, and mitigating these risks that we should ensure the safety of food reaching the consumer. The logical approach to food safety should be product-based, from ‘farm to table’. This means that if chicken or eggs have been implicated in an episode of food-borne illness, ensuring food safety should start right from the surveillance of poultry farms and ensuring that farm birds are being vaccinated against salmonella,” points out Bobby Krishna, Senior Food Safety Specialist at the Food Safety department of Dubai Municipality.

“A lot of these episodes of food-borne illnesses can be reduced through safe practices and for that, we need to impart simple information to the local food industry and the consumers on how contamination can occur in food and how pathogens act on food. If the system cannot ensure the safety of raw eggs, restaurants should be asked to serve only eggless mayonnaise,” he says.

Store-bought mayonnaise is deemed safe as it contains pasteurised eggs and preservatives. Raw poultry naturally carries a high risk of salmonella contamination and food contaminated by salmonella will not look or taste different. Thus safe-handling of poultry to prevent cross contamination in the kitchen and adequate cooking should be a priority. 

Uncooked rice can contain spores of a bacteria Bacillus cereus that can survive cooking. These spores can become bacteria if cooked rice is left at room temperature. The toxins produced by the bacteria can trigger food poisoning. The safe practice in this case will be to serve rice as soon as it is cooked or to refrigerate the cooked rice as soon as possible.

Risk factors will be different for each kind of food and one of the first things to be done is listing the possible hazards associated with each food for the local food industry to keep track of.

Epidemiological surveillance by health authorities is a primary element in determining risk factors for food-borne disease by linking diseases with their origin through the scientific investigation of outbreaks.

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