Exposing the myths about food hygiene

Food safety feature.
Food safety feature.

Do you believe the five-second rule when it comes to food?

For instance, if you drop something on your kitchen floor are you one of those people who retrieves it quickly and pops it in your mouth?

Or, when it comes to food hygiene, do you wash your chicken and chill your opened bottle of tomato ketchup?

And do you believe that, if food smells okay, then it must be safe to eat?

These are the very questions that National Food Safety Week is trying to get more of us to think about.

The annual event, which is run by the Food Standards Agency, is being held this week (June 6-12) and hopes to raise awareness of the importance of food hygiene and put to bed common food myths, predominantly believed by the over-65s.

In the past, the event has drawn attention to well-known food-related issues and has also revealed some jaw-dropping facts.

In recent years, it was discovered that almost a third of people whose job it was to handle food failed to wash their hands after visiting the bathroom.

Often, such a blatant disregard for hygiene can result in nasty bugs finding their way on to our plates and into our bodies.

And Falkirk’s food and safety manager believes that more could be done to track down food outlets who may be ignorant of – or cavalier with – food hygiene procedures.

John Sleith said: “If people fall ill, a lot of the time they assume that it’s just a bug that’s going around,

“If it is related to food poisoning, then 99 times out of a 100 we won’t get to hear about it.

“But what I would like to see is people going to the doctor’s and GPs taking a sample so that, if there is a problem with a food outlet, then we can trace it back to the source.”

When potential food poisoning cases have been investigated, full-scale inspections have been carried out and criminal proceedings have even been brought against those owners who have let their establishment slip into a bacteria breeding ground.

One mum-of-two who knows all too well of the dangers when food seriously goes bad is Falkirk nurse Rosemarie Speedie (48) who was personally affected by one of the worst outbreaks of E.coli food poisoning in recent years.

In 1996, 21 people died after eating contaminated meat supplied by a butcher’s shop in Lanarkshire. The meat made its way to the Bonnybridge and Banknock area where Rosemarie’s 11-year-old nephew contracted the bug.

And, when he used a whistle belonging to Rosemarie’s baby daughter Rebecca, the situation became very serious.

Rosemarie from Bonnybridge said: “Beccy was only 20 months old, so instead of blowing the whistle she sucked. We believe she contracted it from his saliva that would have been in the whistle.

“Within 48 hours, Beccy was very ill with bloody diarrhoea and lethargy.

“She continued to deteriorate, initially being treated in Stirling Royal and then, when her renal failure became more advanced, she was transferred as an emergency toYorkhill.

“She was very ill with haemolytic uraemic syndrome and required blood transfusions, drips and drugs.

“I’m sure that Beccy was one of the youngest kids in Yorkhill at that time and they had to continue to monitor her for several years.

“Even now, as a teenager. she has to have her blood pressure checked annually to ensure she does not develop chronic renal failure, although I am sure her risks now must be minimal as she keeps very well.

“As a nurse I have always been acutely aware of hand hygiene and hygiene in general, but I suppose this made me even more so. I am very careful about food storage in my fridge and cross contamination.”

Problems in our own kitchens are well worth tackling.

In fact you are just as likely to pick up a bug like campylobacter or listeria in your kitchen.

That’s one reason the 2011 Food Safety Awareness Week is focusing on the home, with the agency surveying more than 2000 people to ask whether they thought a range of statements about food safety were true or false.

And, while the research showed most of us are aware of good hygiene in the kitchen, food misconceptions are still doing the rounds.

One in 10 people questioned in Scotland think that, if you drop food on the floor, it is safe to eat as long as you pick it up within five seconds.

But it seems that there is no truth in this much-loved practice.

Mr Sleith said: “It really depends on what the food is and how clean your floor is, but in general it’s not a good idea.

“The kitchen is a place where family pets have access and some don’t have the most hygienic of personal habits.

“Another thing to consider is that the kitchen is often where or close to where the washing machine is so dirty washing and dirty underwear is being taken there.

“But one of the most common misconceptions is that people think you need to wash raw chicken, but what that can do is splash germs all over the kitchen.”

Two thirds of people surveyed in Scotland believe that poultry must be washed, but experts say that thoroughly cooking it will be enough to kill any bacteria.

Dr Jacqui McElhiney, a food safety expert at the Food Standards Agency in Scotland, said: “This research shows that many people in Scotland still have some misconceptions about how we should store, prepare and cook our food, which could put us at more risk of food poisoning.

“Overall it seems that people over 65 are more likely to believe many of these food myths. In particular they are more likely to think that ‘use by’ dates are there to make you throw food away before you need to, which is worrying as, if they contract food poisoning, they get it more severely than younger people and are more likely to end up in hospital.

“Food poisoning is pretty miserable but for some people it can also be very dangerous. “There are about a million cases every year and we’re working hard with food producers, processors and retailers to bring that number down. With Food Safety Week, we hope this research will help people think about what they do and better separate fact from fiction in their kitchens.”