Public health agencies in Australia have issued advice to help people avoid food poisoning this holiday season.

The country is in it’s summer months now and has also been affected by bushfires and record high temperatures of 41.9 degrees C (107.4 degrees F) this past week.

In New South Wales (NSW), 168 Salmonella infections have been reported so far this month.

Keira Glasgow, NSW health manager of enteric and zoonotic diseases, said careful food preparation and storage is the best way to avoid salmonellosis.

Prevent Salmonella outbreaks
“Over every Christmas break we see outbreaks of Salmonella food poisoning, which are usually due to food not being prepared and stored properly,” she said.

“The most common causes of salmonellosis outbreaks are eating food containing raw or undercooked eggs and not carefully separating raw food from cooked food. The longer food is left out of the fridge, the more bacteria will multiply. If food that is normally refrigerated has been sitting out for over two hours, you should throw it out.”

Tips include using different chopping boards, trays, utensils and plates when preparing raw foods, especially meat, and ready to eat food as well as thawing frozen food in the fridge as Salmonella bacteria grow between 5 and 60 degrees C (41 to 140 degrees F).

NSW Food Authority CEO, Dr. Lisa Szabo, said to reduce the risk of Salmonella poisoning, consumers and food retailers can use commercially produced items instead of handmade mayonnaise and sauces.

“It is also much safer to use commercially pasteurized eggs rather than raw eggs in ready-to-eat products such as desserts and dressings. Businesses in NSW must comply with strict requirements around the use of raw eggs in foods, and the sale of eggs with dirty or cracked shells is prohibited.”

Food poisoning stats in Queensland
Steven Miles, Queensland minister for health and ambulance services, said there are many factors that contribute to food poisoning during the festive season.

“Between Christmas Eve and Dec. 27 last year, more than 200 people ended up at an emergency department because of gastro illnesses,” he said.

“Many were cases were due to food poisoning, which can be very dangerous. Traditionally, bugs like Campylobacter and Salmonella are more prevalent at this time of the year. Lots of meals are being prepared, increasing the risk of contamination. Food can turn in hot weather if it’s left out too long or not stored properly. Several hands – some clean, some not – are touching snacks and finger food.”

Dr. Jeannette Young, Queensland’s chief health officer, said there were more than 60 presentations a day at public emergency departments for gastro illnesses including food poisoning, waterborne diseases and gut bacterial infections.

So far this year, Queensland Health has been notified of more than 8,700 cases of Campylobacter infection, 3,548 of salmonellosis, and 11 of listeriosis.

Young said most people usually recover from food poisoning however it could cause serious illness and death in vulnerable people including the young, elderly, pregnant women and those with chronic diseases.

“The types of meals people are preparing contain ingredients that can be dangerous if not cooked thoroughly, like chicken, turkey, seafood and eggs,” she said.

“For example, don’t wash eggs or raw meats, including poultry, in your kitchen as this can spread bacteria and result in other food or surfaces being contaminated. It’s also important to store raw meats and seafood on the bottom shelf of your fridge so they don’t drip onto ready-to-eat food like salads or desserts.”

Food prep and storage advice
Dr. Fay Jenkins, South Australia’s Department for Health and Wellbeing’s director of food and controlled drugs branch, also said safe food preparation and food storage are equally important.

“We’ve had over 1,000 cases of Salmonella this year alone but the good news is that this nasty foodborne disease can be prevented by proper food handling practices. Perishable foods such as chicken, ham, and seafood warm up even quicker than normal on hot days, so it’s important to ensure the food temperature remains below five degrees,” she said.

Jenkins said the warm interior of a car provides the ideal environment and temperature for bacteria to multiply.

“It’s best to pick up your refrigerated goods at the end of your shop and use an esky or cooler bags to transport cold items, which should be unpacked and refrigerated as soon as you get home. Once you’re home, don’t overstock your fridge and freezer, as this won’t allow the cool air to circulate freely and food cannot be adequately frozen or chilled.”

Jenkins said while Christmas leftovers were a great way to ensure excess food is not wasted it was important to remember the two to four hour rule.

“If the food has been left out for less than two hours it should be okay to put back in the fridge to eat later, so long as it hasn’t been sitting in the sun. Never eat perishable food or leftovers that have been unrefrigerated for more than four hours,” she said.

“This rule is particularly important if the leftovers are going to be consumed by young children, older people, pregnant women or someone who is unwell as these people are most at risk of food poisoning.”

Cathy Moir, Food Safety Information Council chair, said people need to be extra careful with food safety practices when catering for a lot of people, especially during the hot summer weather.

“Our research found that one in three Australians are either at serious risk of getting food poisoning themselves or live in a household with someone at risk. Any one of your guests could be in these vulnerable groups such as being pregnant, elderly or having reduced immune systems due to illness or certain medicines.” said Moir.

“Rates of Salmonella are high in Australia which can be linked to mishandled poultry and raw or undercooked egg dishes.”

The Food Safety Information Council is a health promotion charity which aims to address the estimated 4.1 million cases of food poisoning in Australia each year that result in 31,920 hospitalizations, 86 deaths and 1 million visits to doctors.

It has put together 10 food safety tips, general advice for Christmas and a holiday quiz.

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