From Christmas leftovers to New Year’s Day picnics and backyard barbecues, summer in Australia is a time for food and festivity, but experts warn that it is also a time for heightened food safety risks.
One in three Australians is at serious risk of getting food poisoning or live in a household with someone at risk, Food Safety Information Council (FSIC) chairwoman Cathy Moir said.
People entertaining guests over summer should be particular aware of those who fall into the vulnerable categories (pregnant, elderly or having a reduced immune system), Ms Moir said.
She said raw or undercooked foods, coupled with hot summer weather, posed the biggest food safety risk.
Rates of salmonella contamination are high in Australia, often linked to mis-handled poultry and raw or undercooked egg dishes.
There have been a number of salmonella outbreaks linked to contaminated eggs in 2019, including 235 people becoming ill in May and June.
Last year, a major listeria outbreak linked to rockmelon led to the death of seven people and a miscarriage.
Summer food safety tips
The FSIC outlined a number of practical food safety tips for anyone entertaining over the summer period:
- Plan ahead and don’t buy too much food. It’s vital that you don’t overstock your fridge and freezer, as this won’t allow the cool air to circulate freely and perishable food cannot be adequately frozen or chilled. Less food will also help to reduce food waste.
- Make room in your fridge for perishable foods by removing alcohol and soft drinks and put them on ice in a container or laundry sink. This also stops guests opening the fridge and helps to maintain the temperature at 5°C or below. Use a fridge thermometer to check the temperature.
- Refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible. If perishable foods and leftovers have been left out of the fridge for less than two hours they should be OK to refrigerate or freeze to eat later, so long as it hasn’t been sitting in the sun.
- Always reheat leftovers to 75°C in the centre of the item or the thickest part to kill any food poisoning bugs. Use a probe thermometer to help you make sure that the leftovers have been reheated safely.
- The four hour rule: Never eat perishable food that has been unrefrigerated for more than four hours as it may not be safe and should be thrown away.
- Hot days: On a very hot day food should not be refrigerated if it has been outside in the heat for more than an hour and discarded after it has sat outside for two hours.
- Hygiene: Don’t forget to wash your hands in warm soapy water before preparing and cooking food, and after handling eggs, raw meat, particularly poultry, burgers and sausages.
Tips for handling specific foods:
- Poultry: Frozen poultry can take several days to defrost in the fridge, which can also increase the risk of potentially contaminating ready to eat foods stored in the fridge. Ask your food business if they can defrost it in their cool room ready for you to pick up. Don’t wash any poultry before cooking as that will spread the bacteria around your kitchen.
- Eggs: Cooked egg dishes are simple and nutritious but try to avoid raw or minimally cooked egg dishes, such as raw egg mayonnaise or aioli, egg nog or fancy desserts, which can be a particular risk for food poisoning. A safer alternative, if you want to serve raw egg dishes, is to look for pasteurised egg products.
- Christmas ham won’t last forever Check the storage instructions and best before or use by date before removing the ham from its plastic wrap, cover it with clean cloth soaked in water and vinegar so it doesn’t dry out, and store it in the fridge at or below 5°C. It is important to remember the use by date on the original packaging won’t apply after the packaging has been removed, so check the fine print and see if the ham has a suggested shelf life after opening. Reduced salt hams are now becoming popular but will not last as long as conventional hams so think how much you are going to use in the next week or so and freeze some for later.
- Dips, cheese, seafood, cold cuts: Don’t leave dips and other perishable chilled foods like patés, cold meats, soft cheeses like camembert and brie, cold poultry, cooked seafood like prawns and smoked salmon, sushi and salads out for more than two hours. Put out small amounts and replace (not top them up) from the fridge.
Food allergy reactions on the rise
Food poisoning isn’t the only risk to guard against this summer either, with experts raising concerns about the growing number of food-induced allergic reactions.
Food allergies are increasingly common around the world, and Australia has one of the highest incidences of food allergy among children.
Between 2005 and 2012, hospital admission for food-induced acute allergic reactions spiked by 150 per cent.
Meanwhile, the number of food products recalled due to unlabelled allergens has been steadily increasing over the past decade.
Of the 100 food recalls in 2018, 46 cases were for undeclared allergens, while 20 were due to ‘microbial contamination’ caused by potentially life-threatening bugs such as listeria, salmonella and E. coli.
In December, a study by James Cook University (JCU) revealed that hidden ingredients in imported foods are putting allergy sufferers at risk.
Potentially deadly allergens were found lurking in nearly one in two of the imported food products tested by researchers, the study published in the Food Additives & Contaminants journal revealed.
Allergens not listed on the product labelling were found in 46 per cent of the products analysed, with 18 per cent containing multiple undeclared allergens.
Undeclared allergens detected included egg, gluten, milk and peanut, some in very high concentrations.
China was the source of products with the highest number of detectable, undeclared allergens, followed by Thailand and South Korea.
Imported foods are “fraught with danger” for allergy sufferers, Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia chief executive Maria Said told The New Daily.
“Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia has been telling [allergy sufferers] to be cautious of foods imported from Asian countries for many years,” she warned.
“When you look at the number of food recalls, and how many involve imported foods, it’s concerning.”