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What you can do to prevent food poisoning

Norval Strachan from Food Standards Scotland

Our Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Norval Strachan, writes about the main causes of food poisoning and the steps you can take to prevent it.

Today is the first ever World Food Safety Day and what better day to talk about the main causes of food poisoning in Scotland and what you can do to make sure you and your family don’t get sick. 

Of course Food Standards Scotland is here to make sure the food you eat is safe, but we all have a role to play by following good practices in how we cook, handle and store our food. 

One of the biggest concerns to us personally, regarding food safety, is the risk of food poisoning.  Thankfully, there’s a lot we can do to protect ourselves and those we care for, but before going into that it’s important to understand a bit more about what exactly causes food poisoning. 

As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, my main research interest over the past 15 years has been trying to understand how people become ill from infectious diseases, mainly the ones that cause food poisoning, and my main focus is on gastrointestinal bacteria such as E. coli O157, campylobacter, salmonella, and listeria.  Obviously people don’t refer to scientific names when they’re talking about food poisoning; most people would simply say they have food poisoning or maybe that they’ve got a tummy bug.  But there are big differences in the kinds of food poisoning you can get, and some of these can be extremely serious, especially to the elderly or very young, or those with weakened immune systems.  In some cases, food poisoning can mean you end up in  hospital and can even be fatal.

The good news is that we can all do plenty of things to reduce our chances of getting food poisoning.  In this blog I’m going to focus on one particular germ called campylobacter - campy for short - as this is the biggest culprit of food poisoning in Scotland.  Around 6,000 cases of this kind of illness are reported each year in Scotland alone and approximately 14% of these cases need hospital treatment.  Campy was also a topic at the recent FSS Board meeting. 

So how do you get Campy?

You can get this kind of poisoning by eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water, or having contact with infected animals (such as pets and farm animals); but the most common cases (over half of all reported) come from contaminated chicken.  To give you a sense of how serious this germ is, even one drop of juice from raw chicken can have enough bacteria to infect a person.  Or say, if you pick up raw chicken with tongs and then use those tongs to pick up salad – that in itself can be enough to cause infection. It’s frightening put like that, but there are lots of easy things you can do to make sure you don’t get poisoning from campylobacter.

To wash or not to wash?

I do often get asked why we give advice not to wash chicken as it seems logical to wash something to clean it, but the reason is because washing chicken increases the likelihood of contamination through water splashing on work surfaces because remember, even just a drop of infected water dripping on to a surface can cause risk of cross contamination.  You may not even notice a drop or two but imagine then going to chop your salad or spread a sandwich on this surface.  You can’t see, smell or taste campy on food but once it affects you, you won’t forget it!

Why is it not a good idea to eat pink chicken?

This is because you need to cook chicken (and duck and turkey) thoroughly to ensure that any campylobacter that may be present are killed so that the chicken is safe to eat. You also need to do this when you’re cooking chicken livers to make chicken pate.

It’s worth taking a look at the pink chicken campaign that highlighted the dangers of not thoroughly cooking chicken.

Pink chicken

Pink chicken

Food poisoning can wreck your summer barbecue. Keep pink chicken – and nasty food bugs – off the menu.

How we can protect ourselves

  • Don’t wash raw chicken.  You run the risk of spreading campy by splashing it on hands, work surfaces, ready-to-eat foods like salad and cooking equipment.
  • Cook poultry thoroughly.  This is the best way to kill campy.  Use a food thermometer if you can and check food  reaches 75oC in the thickest part of the meat.  If you don’t have a food thermometer check the meat is steaming hot with no pink meat and the juices run clear.
  • Wash hands thoroughly after handling raw meat.
  • Use different chopping boards and utensils for raw poultry and ready to eat foods or wash thoroughly between use.
  • Keep raw chicken at the bottom of the fridge, covered, preferably in a sealed container, and away from other foods.

Food Standards Scotland has much more food safety advice to keep you and your family safe.  A good starting point is reading our food safety advice on the '4Cs'.

You can also play our Kitchen Crimes game to find out which food safety ‘crimes’ you’re committing, and why it’s important to aim for a clean record!

Have you committed a kitchen crime?

Have you committed a kitchen crime?

A lack of good kitchen hygiene can lead to food poisoning. Are you guilty of committing a ‘kitchen crime’ in your home?

Under the microscope - why chicken meat is associated with campylobacter

Chicken is a common source because campylobacter naturally survives and grows in the gut of chickens but individual birds show no signs of illness. When an infected bird is slaughtered, campylobacter can be transferred from the bird's gut to the meat. The chicken industry is making progress at reducing levels of campylobacter but still around half of chickens may have campylobacter on them.

More on this topic

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