Food poisoning doesn’t just happen when eating out or with takeaway food; without proper precautions it can occur in the home too. Because pregnant women and young children are more susceptible to food poisoning, extra care must be taken when preparing food at home.

Why some groups are more at risk of food poisoning

Far from just simply an upset stomach, food poisoning can have a serious effect on individuals with a developing or compromised immune system. Toddlers and small children, people with existing medical conditions and pregnant women may all suffer the effects of food poisoning far more acutely.

What is food poisoning?

Food poisoning is often accompanied by symptoms of vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea, fever, stomach cramps and headaches. It is caused largely by bacteria.

Bacteria and other microorganisms are present in most foods. Many of these are not harmful and some, in fact, are necessary for our digestive systems to properly function. However, some bacteria are harmful or produce toxins that harm our bodies – particularly when those bacteria are present in large numbers.

These bacteria may be transmitted through poor food-handler hygiene or cross-contamination of food with other substances. Bacteria may also flourish when food has been improperly cooked or stored.

Bacteria thrive on warmth and moisture, and the danger zone for foods is between 5° and 60° Celsius. This is why food should be stored in the fridge or freezer – or, if not refrigerated, in a cool, dark dry place – and cooked above 75° Celsius to be eaten as soon as possible.

High-risk foods

Food poisoning can occur wherever a food has been contaminated with bacteria or improperly stored. However, some of the foods most at risk of causing food poisoning include:

  • seafood, especially shellfish and prawns
  • red and white meat
  • dairy and egg-based products
  • deli meats
  • foods with high moisture content – such as curries, stews and casseroles – and that contain any of the above foods.

Care when buying foods

  • Check the use-by-date – the sale of food items is well-regulated at supermarkets, but more relaxed at wholesale markets and marketplaces. Always check the label.
  • Keep hot and cold foods separate in your shopping bags, and store foods immediately upon returning home.
  • Make sure whoever is preparing or handling your food – such as in a deli, café or butcher – is wearing gloves and that they use sperate utensils for different foods.

Care when preparing foods

  • Always practice good personal hygiene – wash your hands before touching food and avoid doing so if you are sick.
  • Wash foods such as fruit and vegetables before eating or placing them on the surface you are eating from.
  • Ensure any surfaces and utensils are thoroughly cleaned before and after use.
  • When preparing raw meat, use the surface and utensils only for that preparation stage and then wash before reusing.
  • Red meat should be cooked until the juices are clear; cook white meat until there is no pink flesh left; and cook fish until the flesh flakes when separated with a fork.
  • Leftovers should be thoroughly heated and steaming hot the whole way through before eating. If using a microwave, pause the cycle halfway through and give the food a stir before resuming.

Care when storing foods

  • Store any raw foods on the bottom of your fridge, and keep fruit and vegetables separated from meat.
  • Any hot foods should be allowed to cool to room temperature outside the fridge before storing. However, don’t leave them out for longer than two hours.
  • Store your foods in containers that have been thoroughly washed.
  • Aim to eat leftovers within one to two days.

If food poisoning occurs

If the signs and symptoms of food poisoning occur, you should seek urgent medical attention. Visit your GP or a hospital, or call your state or territory’s food safety hotline.