How to avoid food poisoning this summer

Living Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 16 December 2019

With food-related illnesses spiking over summer, here’s how to avoid getting sick.

Summer is the season for barbecues, parties, and for food poisoning, says Victoria’s chief health officer Dr Brett Sutton.

He says bacteria love warm conditions and authorities see a rise in food-related illnesses over summer including gastroenteritis and the potentially deadly listeria bacteria.

Christmas ham on a plate

“While gastro tends to be a short-term illness, it can still be nasty,” says Brett.

“Nobody wants to be dealing with abdominal cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting when everyone else is enjoying the holidays, and a severe case can lead to dehydration, which can be very dangerous.”

He says listeria can kill vulnerable people such as the elderly or people with poor immune systems, and is dangerous to pregnant women and their unborn babies. 

“While it’s rare, it’s a very serious disease,” he says. “Whatever we eat or wherever we eat it, safe food handling is critical to making sure nobody gets sick and unfortunately, because bacteria love warm conditions, we do see a spike in food-related illnesses over summer.”

He says people can prevent illnesses by practising proper food safety, including storing, preparing, handling and cooking food correctly and keeping food out of the temperature “danger zone” between five and 60 degrees Celsius which promotes bacteria growth.

He says the state government’s betterhealth website has a guide to safe food handling this summer as well as advice on how to avoid food poisoning.

The combination of warm weather and an overloaded fridge are what put people at risk throughout Christmas and other summer festivities, according to Food Safety Information Council spokeswoman Lydia Buchtmann.

She says overstocking your fridge can affect the fridge temperature which should be maintained at five degrees or lower, so make room by removing alcohol and soft drinks and instead cool them in ice in the sink.

She says home cooks should take extra care when preparing food for several different generations as food poisoning could be “very serious” for young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

The council, a health promotion charity, estimates food poisoning hits 4.1 million Australians a year, causing 31,920 hospitalisations, 86 deaths and a million visits to doctors. And Lydia says summer is peak season.

A table set for a Christmas lunch
A bowl of cooked prawns
A plate with a roast chicken on it

Lydia’s top seven tips for a safe Christmas celebration

Wash your hands.
Thoroughly wash and dry your hands when preparing food.

Cross-contamination. Don’t mix raw foods and ready-to-eat foods, and wash your hands, chopping board and knives when switching between foods.

Talking turkey. Consider buying a turkey breast or a turkey buffet that is simpler to cook than a whole turkey. If you want a whole turkey ask your supplier to defrost it in their cool room, otherwise defrost it in your fridge over several days.

Storing the ham. Check the storage instructions and use-by date then remove the ham from its plastic wrap, cover with a clean cloth soaked in water and vinegar so it doesn’t dry out, and store in the fridge at below five degrees Celsius.

Keeping leftovers. Refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible. Food that has been unrefrigerated for more than four hours may not be safe and should be thrown out. Always reheat leftovers to 75 degrees Celsius in the centre of the item or the thickest part of the food, to kill any food-poisoning bugs.

Avoid raw eggs. Beware of raw-egg mayonnaise or aioli and eggnog which can pose a food-poisoning risk. A safer alternative for raw-egg dishes is using pasteurised eggs.

Bringing home seafood. Pick up close to the day you plan to use it and carry it in a cooler with ice before promptly refrigerating.