A report card on Australia’s food safety record this past year shows a decline in some foodborne diseases but mixed news on handwashing.

Data was released by the Food Safety Information Council (FSIC) and Environmental Health Australia to mark the third World Food Safety Day on June 7.

In an average year, there are an estimated 4.1 million cases of food poisoning in Australia that result in 31,920 hospitalizations, 86 deaths and 1 million visits to doctors.

Many reasons possible for illness decline
During 2020 there were fewer diagnosed cases of Campylobacter and Salmonella infections, although the reasons for this are not clear. It could be because of restaurant and business closures during COVID-19 lockdowns because food poisoning outbreaks can be linked to food service. There were also fewer international travelers who may have acquired food poisoning overseas.

People may have been less likely to seek medical attention and provide a specimen for diagnosis and there may have been an impact on laboratories’ testing capacity.

A 2020 Omnipoll survey found a 4 percent increase in people who said they always wash their hands after going to the toilet, up to 83 percent. However, there was a 5 percent drop to 58 percent in the number of respondents who said they always washed their hands before handling food.

Men were less likely than women to say they always wash hands after going to the toilet, at 80 percent versus 85 percent of women, and before touching food at 53 percent compared to 62 percent of women.

The survey found only 75 percent of respondents between 18 and 34 years old said they always washed their hands after going to the toilet compared with 89 percent of those 50 and older. Only 55 percent between 18 and 34 years of age said they always washed their hands before handling food compared with 61 percent of those older than 50.

FSIC said the findings were concerning because young people often work as food handlers or have jobs caring for vulnerable groups in the child, aged care and disability sectors.

Social media fail and wild mushroom warning
Cathy Moir, council chair, said the report shows the past 12 months have seen a mixed report card for Australian food safety.

“Finally, a big fail for some of the social media giants such as Facebook and WeChat who continue to advertise unregulated food for sale. Don’t risk buying from an illegal seller with these signs: is the location you collect the food from a home address, does the vendor have proof they have a food license or are a registered business, and is the food a much cheaper price than you would usually pay? If in doubt don’t take the risk,” she said.

Poison Information Centers around the country have also reported increased calls from people who may have eaten poisonous mushrooms, as wild mushrooms have been growing after wet weather.

Australia has its own food safety week which is planned this year for Nov. 14-21.

Philip Swain, national president of Environmental Health Australia, said food safety is important at home or for staff in a food business.

“And the basics are simple, washing hands before handling food, ensuring perishable food is stored and served at correct temperatures, and ensuring cross contamination from surfaces to food isn’t occurring. So if you need assistance or advice don’t hesitate to contact your local government environmental health officer,” he said.

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