Food is Poisoning Us

Companies are continually recalling food and drinks products due to mis-labelling or contamination. For example over the past 4 weeks:

A wine company recalled their products due to incorrect allergen labelling information. Allergen: Sulphites

A food company recalled soft dried apricots due to incorrect allergen labelling information. Allergen: Sulphites

A supermarket chain recalled a green Thai style stir fry sauce due to incorrect allergen labelling information. Allergen: Fish

A supermarket chain recalled its Indian cooking sauces because the acidity levels are too low. As the acidity levels are too low, this means micro-organisms may grow and the sauces will be past their best before the ‘best before’ date that appears on the jar.

A drinks company has withdrawn batches of soft drinks because of high levels of benzoic acid (a permitted preservative)

A supermarket chain has withdrawn two batches of its own-brand wholegrain brown rice because they might be contaminated with insects.

I’ve looked at diet and nutrition in previous articles and the role of food in that diet. What about the food itself? Apart from the nutrients it provides, what other undesirable elements are included in food?

Safe food is defined as food which is free from contaminants and will not cause illness or harm.

Food poisoning is an acute illness (quick onset) caused by the consumption of contaminated or poisonous food.

There are four classes of contaminants: Microbial, Chemical,Physical and Allergenic. All have been implicated in making people ill and causing death.

Food hygiene is defined as all practices and procedures that food handlers adopt to ensure the safety of food. Poor food hygiene practices are a major cause of food poisoning, not just in the commercial world of cafes, restaurants, take-outs and pre-prepared TV dinners, but also in our homes.

It has been conservatively estimated by food safety scientists that there are at least 6 million cases of food poisoning in the UK and 30 million cases in the USA every year; approximately 10% of their respective populations. These figures refer to the reported, and more substantially to the unreported cases of food poisoning. The latter constituting the biggest part of the cases. So why the increase, rather than decrease over the past 15 or more years?

1. Increase in the purchase of cheap, intensively farmed poultry. Poultry farmed in closed buildings. 14 birds reared in an area of 1 square metre. Each bird pecking at each other, at each others urine and faeces, causing infection. That is not to say that free range, organically raised poultry are free from disease, far from it. Free range states that chickens have access to the outside, not necessarily that they take that option! Even if they reach outside, they peck at soil and faeces, again causing infection.

2. Intensive feeding of farm animals was responsible for starting BSE in the 1980s. Farmers feeding dead, scrapie infected sheep’s’ carcasses to cattle was the probable cause. If farmers leave their sheep and cattle to graze naturally, it takes longer for them to reach maturity than if they are fed supplements. Farmers have to get their animals to market as quickly as possible. It makes good business sense, this way they will make a profit more quickly and cash flows. However,in order to bring their produce to market sooner they use supplemental feeds based on high protein, usually meat or fish derivatives. From an ethical point of view they are feeding vegetarians animal based protein? From a business point of view it also makes good sense to use the cheapest animal food they can source. Unfortunately a lot of the cheap food is not sterilised to kill microbial contaminants. This is transferred to the animals and to us.

3. There has been a dearth of ethnic food outlets sprouting up throughout all rural communities. The problem here is not one of race or ethnicity; it is not being able to provide food hygiene courses in their native tongue, which is not usually English. Many large cities will have training providers, but not the rural areas, where the eateries are located. Although food hygiene books are provided in the majority of non-English languages, people will not learn just from books, they must attend an interactive lesson or online course. Books are so easily tossed to one side to gather dust.

4. Pre-prepared foods such as ready meals, TV dinners, desserts, etc are prepared out of our control. Do you really know what has been included in the preparation, can you trust the ingredients list, and can you guarantee the personal hygiene of the food handler? My background as a chef gives me adequate knowledge to prepare my own meals from raw materials. I know what goes into the preparation and cooking. But what about the raw materials? That’s one chink in my food preparation armour.

5. Barbeques are a major source of food poisoning every year. Here we have two problems. One is the handling of raw and ready to eat food. If there is one thing you must remember about food it is this: all raw meat contains food poisoning bacteria (pathogens). This is without exception. Meat is prepared in abattoirs, which are not the most sanitary of facilities. There is a lot of splashing and spillages from intestinal fluids and faeces of the animals being prepared for the table. These residues contaminate the prepared carcasses.

If raw meat is handled and one’s hands are not washed, the meat juices, along with the pathogens, can be transferred to ready to eat food, (bread roles for example), and cause illness. Food tends to cook quickly on a barbecue, especially the outside, but not the inside, not enough to kill pathogens. Foods must be cooked to the right temperature to kill bacteria or illness will ensue.

6. More bacteria variants are mutating, causing more illnesses than ever before. The more chemicals we use to try to destroy them, the more they develop an immunity to the chemicals.

7. We tend not to let our children play in insanitary conditions, such as in mud. We feed them highly processed food, which is totally devoid of bacteria. We are not allowing them to develop an immunity to pathogens.

8. When we buy ready to eat chilled food from an outlet,it must be kept chilled. Examples are: ready to eat cold meat, filled rolls/sandwiches/baguettes, scotch eggs, pork pies. These foods will contain pathogens, in small numbers, from the food handlers, customers, environment, etc. They will also contain spores from certain pathogens. If the food is not kept cold, the spores will germinate and start to grow as bacteria,the bacteria already present will also grow. This growth will then cause illness, even if the food is placed in the fridge, on arriving at home. The damage is done, it is too late.

9. There are less chemical preservatives in foods than there used to be. Scientists have found and are still finding that certain chemical additives can cause diseases such as cancer. Manufacturers strive to use more natural preservatives such as sugar, salt, vinegar, lemon/lime juice, herbs, and spices to prevent decay.

So what should we do?

1. Cheap poultry is a good source of cheap protein, especially for families who cannot afford more expensive protein. Cheap poultry will continue to be produced until the market dictates otherwise. Ensure the meat is cooked to the right temperature to kill the pathogens. Check the thickest part of the meat to ensure the temperature is constant throughout.

2. Intensively fed animals will still be produced as families look for cheaper cuts of meat. Again any pathogens will be killed by adequate cooking. I will be covering temperatures in a further article.

3. More effort by country’s’ governments to fund courses for ethnic food outlets should be encouraged. Whilst I am on the subject of ethnic outlets, please beware of the rogue kebab takeaways. Kebab meat (lamb or chicken) is raw meat; it is therefore a harbinger of pathogens. The kebab meat is placed on a skewer which rotates in front of a heat source. The only part of the meat to be cooked is the outside surface. When the meat is sliced it is still partly raw, therefore containing bacteria. The outlet should now place the shavings of meat on a griddle to finish cooking. If not, and the meat is served straight away, it contains pathogens and will cause illness. If you drink alcohol before you order the kebab, be especially aware! Alcohol reduces your immunity to food poisoning and the end result could be twice as bad!

4. Prepare your own food from raw materials. Cut out the middle man/woman who might contaminate your food. I will be introducing video cookery lessons later in 2010, so there will be no excuses!

5. If you handle raw foods during barbeques, wash your hands before handling other foods such as bread rolls. Ensure the right temperature is achieved before serving food. Check the thickest part of the food.

6. Avoid using chemicals wherever possible. The best disinfectant (a product which kills bacteria) I know is very hot water, for example straight from a kettle.

7. Let our children develop an immunity to pathogens. Let them play outdoors (under supervision); feed them freshly prepared foods, especially raw foods.

8. Keep chilled food cold, either by packing the food in thermal boxes with ice packs or mixing your frozen foods with your chilled foods in the same bag.

9. Check labels on containers to see what storage conditions are required. It either has to be refrigerated after opening or retained in a cool storage area, such as a kitchen cupboard. Supermarkets are recalling food products almost on a daily basis due to contamination or mis-labelling. Food poisoning is on the increase due to incorrect handling of chilled food, intensive farming/feeding, language barriers with ethnic eateries, BBQs cause major problems, eating out more, eating more pre-prepared foods, more bacterial mutations. Good housekeeping and a common sense approach to eating can help prevent many cases.