The World Health Organization (WHO) celebrates World Health Day on April 7th yearly. The theme for this year is “From Farm to Plate, Make Food Safe”.
Food safety can be defined as the process of ensuring food will not cause harm at any stage of the food supply chain. The WHO reported that more than 200 diseases are caused by consumption of unsafe foods that contain harmful biological and chemical substances; these diseases range from diarrhoea to cancers. They also reported that approximately 2 million people die annually from foodborne and waterborne diarrhoeal diseases. Special precaution must be taken at each stage of the food supply chain to reduce the risk of unsafe foods.
The food supply chain begins with the primary producers such as farmers and fishermen; and ends with you, the consumer. In between there are manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers. Farmers ensure safe foods by properly treating soil and crops to prevent harmful insect infestation and chemical hazards (e.g. with pesticides). They also ensure animals maintain the best health. Manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and food service enterprises ensure safe foods by developing and adhering to specific HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) system; which anticipates the possible hazards, and develops critical indicators and standards to control and prevent these hazards.
Your role in food safety!
As the consumer, your role in food safety is to reduce the risk of biological, chemical and physical hazards.
Biological hazards are microorganisms such as bacteria (e.g. Salmonella and E. Coli), viruses (Hepatitis A, Influenza) and parasites.
Chemical hazards are chemicals such as heavy metals (e.g. lead), natural toxins, pesticides, or antibiotics.
Physical hazards are foreign materials such as a piece of stone, pet hair, or fingernail.
At home, these hazards normally result when pets, pests, and rodents make contact with food; using unclean water to wash hands, foods and utensils; using unclean water, utensils, pots and pans during food preparation and service; when human or animal excreta makes contact with food (caused by no or poor hand washing after bathroom use) and cross-contamination occurs.
To prevent contamination at home, be sure to keep all pets away from food, and store food where rodents and pests cannot get to it. Practise good hygiene; wash hands thoroughly; Remove jewelry and trim and clean nails before handling food to prevent bacteria and other harmful microorganisms from growing and spreading during food preparation. During food preparation, refrain from talking excessively, singing, eating, drinking, smoking, or chewing. Refrain from handling food when you are sick with the flu, fever, diarrhoea, vomiting, skin conditions and gastrointestinal conditions.
It is important not to provide a hospitable environment for bacteria and other microorganisms to grow and multiply. Food, acidity, temperature, time, oxygen, moisture are factors that determines bacterial growth. Bacteria need the nutrients from food to thrive; they need neutral conditions (pH 6.6 to 7.5). Most thrive within the Temperature Danger Zone of 41o F – 140o F. The more time they spend within the danger zone is the more they multiply through the process of binary fission (where each bacterium splits itself into two different bacteria, which can result in 200,000 bacteria being formed in six hours, from one single bacterium with ideal conditions). Oxygen presence or absence also increases growth of bacteria; aerobic bacteria thrive in the presence of oxygen, anaerobes do not. All microorganisms, however, require some amount of moisture to survive; even some dry foods have enough moisture for bacteria to thrive.
Some final tips to make food safe at home:
- Hold and store foods properly: hold hot foods > 140o F, in chafing pans or warming trays; hold cold foods < 41o F by placing food in containers on ice. Cool leftovers to ≤ 40o F within two hours of preparation, then refrigerate. Store meats and other frozen items at ≤ 0o F.
- Prevent cross contamination by: cleaning and sanitizing kitchen counters between preparation of cooked and raw foods; using separate utensils in food preparation and service; separating raw fish, poultry and meats from foods that do not require cooking e.g. cheese, fruits, vegetables, bread, deli meats; never storing cleaning and other chemicals next to food supplies and always labeling all items clearly; never using cleaning and other chemical containers to store foods or beverages; always using the first in first out storage method at home; removing refrigerated items from refrigerator only when you are ready to use them; only using one of the following four safe defrosting methods for food preparation:
- Thaw foods in the refrigerator at 41o F or less;
- Thaw foods using running, drinkable water that is 70o F or less;
- Thaw foods using a microwave, and then cooking the food(s) immediately after removing from the microwave;
- Thaw foods as part of the cooking process.
Knowledge is the first step in food safety. As the consumer, it is your duty to put that knowledge into practise to prevent yourself and your loved ones from contracting foodbourne illnesses.
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