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Let’s Keep our Food Safe

Megan Pentz-Kluyts Nutrition and Dietetics Consultant to CANSA

Food safety saves lives. No matter who you are or what you do, you play an important role in making sure food is safe to eat[1]. Every year, 600 million people fall sick, this is almost 1 in 10 people in the world that fall ill after eating contaminated food[2], [3].

When food is not prepared or stored correctly, harmful bacteria, parasites, or viruses can grow on food. Contaminated food can cause foodborne illness, also called “food poisoning”, when it is eaten.

Foodborne illnesses can be mild or severe, even for people who do not have cancer. It is important that people with cancer and their caregivers know food safety basics to prevent food poisoning, including purchasing fresh food, keeping food fresh, cooking food properly and storing food properly.

Power Alert

One of the biggest concerns in South Africa’ currently, as we continue to experience daily loadshedding, are the potential health risks associated with these power cuts and how to keep food safe. Food spoilage can be a serious problem when refrigerators and freezers lose power, and we can’t keep food at safe temperatures. However, there are steps you can take to keep your food safe[4].

To reduce the risk of falling ill, it’s essential to discard any food that may have been compromised by these power cuts. Perishable foods such as fresh meat, fresh poultry, fresh fish, milk and soft cheeses are the most susceptible to spoilage and food safety concerns during power cuts. Or you can take something that is not inherently a ‘risky food’ but end up keeping the leftovers for too long. For example, keeping rice itself is not unsafe but when you keep it for too long, it can grow bacteria.[5]

We can help protect ourselves and our families from the dangers of foodborne illnesses during loadshedding by following these guidelines on Ways to Keep our Food Safe:

1. When the Power Goes Out

Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. Keep a thermometer in your fridge and freezer and check periodically; fridges should run at no higher than 4°C and freezers at -18°C[6]. A refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours if the door is kept closed. A full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours. A half-full freezer will stay at a sufficient cold temperature for one day if the door remains closed[7].

 2. Winter Weather Pros and Cons

Do not try to use the cold winter weather as an outdoor refrigerator or freezer, as outside temperatures can vary. This can cause chilled food to enter the “danger zone,” between 4°C and 60°C. At those temperatures, frozen food will begin thawing, but it won’t be hot enough to kill bacteria. However, there is one way the winter conditions can be helpful. Refrigerators and freezers are so well insulated that you can put ice in them to keep foods cold, just like an old-fashioned “icebox” that uses ice instead of electricity to keep food chilled. Coolers that you use for picnics, camping, or other outdoor activities can also be filled with ice and used to keep foods safe. Use this ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator, or coolers.

Remember to place meat and poultry to one side of the freezer or on a tray. If the food starts to thaw, liquid may start to flow from them and spoil other foods. Separating meat and poultry beforehand can help prevent cross-contamination.

3. When Power Returns

Once the power comes back on, it’s time to carefully examine each food item inside of your fridge and freezer separately and throw away anything that may be unsafe. If it has risen to 7°C or higher, discard any potentially spoiled foods. If there is food in your freezer that is partially or completely thawed, it can be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals[8].

Throw out any food that has an unusual odour, colour, or texture or if it feels warm to the touch[9]. Such foods include meat, poultry, fish, dairy and egg products, soft cheese, cooked beans, cooked rice, cooked potatoes, cooked pasta, potato salad, custard and pudding. Allow time for the refrigerator to reach below 4°C before restocking. And, of course, when in doubt, throw it out.[10]

4. Read Your Food Labels

Check food labels on how is best to store and prepare food. Check the “Best Before” or “Best Before End” this date signifies the end of the period under any specific storage conditions during which the product will remain fully marketable and will retain any specific qualities for which express claims have been made. Check the “Use by”, “Best Consumed Before” or “Expiry Date” this date signifies the end of the period, after which the product probably will not have the quality attributes normally expected by the consumers and after which date the food should not be regarded as marketable.

5. When in Doubt, Throw it Out

Food that looks or smells rotten must be thrown away immediately. Never taste such food to ‘check’ first before throwing away. However, food contaminated with germs can also look and smell safe. This is an important reason why other food safety measures must also be practiced to reduce the risk of becoming ill[11].

 Eating brings us together. Let’s celebrate with safe, healthy and nutritious food. 

Image courtesy of Freepik

Five Keys To Safer Food[12],[13],adapted

Practice step by step the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Five Keys to Safer Food when handling and preparing food:

  1. Keep clean
  • Wash your hands before handling food and often during food preparation
  • Wash your hands after going to the toilet
  • Wash and sanitize all surfaces and equipment used for food preparation
  • Protect kitchen areas and food from insects, pests and other animals
  • Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other foods
  • Use separate equipment and utensils such as knives and cutting boards for handling raw foods
  • Store food in containers to avoid contact between raw and prepared foods
  1. Separate raw and cooked food
  • When shopping, keep raw meat, poultry, fish and shellfish away from your basket or your grocery trolley and use separate bags for transportation.
  • Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other foods
  • Use separate equipment and utensils such as knives and cutting boards for handling raw foods
  • Store food in containers to avoid contact between raw and prepared foods
  1. Cook thoroughly
  • Cook food thoroughly, especially meat, poultry, eggs and seafood
  • Bring foods like soups and stews to boiling to make sure that they have reached 70°C. For meat and poultry, make sure that juices are clear, not pink. Ideally, use a thermometer
  • Reheat cooked food thoroughly
  1. Keep food at safe temperatures
  • Do not leave cooked food at room temperature for more than 2 hours
  • Refrigerate promptly all cooked and perishable food (preferably 4°C or below)
  • Keep cooked food piping hot (more than 60°C) prior to serving
  • Do not store food too long even in the refrigerator
  • Do not thaw frozen food at room temperature
  1. Use safe water and raw materials
  • Use safe water or treat it to make it safe
  • When there is any doubt about the safety of drinking water, boil or treat it before drinking
  • Select fresh and wholesome foods
  • Choose foods processed for safety, such as pasteurized milk
  • Wash fruits and vegetables well in safe water, especially if eaten raw
  • Read the food labels when buying and preparing food. Do not use food beyond its expiry date













[13] Adapted. Prevention of Foodborne Disease: The Five Keys to Safer Food. World Health Organization.

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