Watch what you eat: A very real concern

This month, award-winning consumer journalist Wendy Knowler provides tips on avoiding food poisoning.

The tragic national listeriosis outbreak and the sharp spike in salmonellosis-related hospitalisations in KZN in recent months have made the prospect of “food poisoning” very real for consumers this year.

I’ve received an email from a mother whose daughter was among five people in a party of nine who fell ill with “gastro” after eating at a Durban restaurant two weeks ago. The child, 15, was hospitalised and lab tests confirmed she had salmonellosis.

Naturally, they’re pointing fingers at the restaurant, specifically at the mayonnaise which all those who fell ill ate.

While a lab test can prove you’ve been infected by food-borne bacteria, to prove conclusively where that infection came from you’d also have to have the remnants of the food you ate tested to establish the link. Picture: Jaron Nix/Unsplash

But the restaurant owner told me that that group was the only one which reported falling ill after that weekend, despite 200 other diners having eaten that batch of mayonnaise.

The Consumer Protection Act: Know Your Rights

So here’s the problem: while a lab test can prove you’ve been infected by food-borne bacteria such as salmonella, listeria or ecoli, to prove conclusively where that infection came from you’d also have to have the remnants of the food you ate tested to establish the link.

And therein lies the problem: gathering evidence and making your way to a path lab is the last thing someone who’s erupting at both ends and running a fever has the energy or inclination for, or even thinks about.

The silly season: Merchants take note

So while the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) gives consumers the right to expect to be sold goods that are of good quality and won’t cause us any harm, and to hold the supplier responsible if that proves not to be the case, we do need to have evidence.

And while that’s fairly straightforward in the case of a toy scooter with a defective wheel and a child who fell and broke her arm when the wheel snapped off, for example, it’s far from easy when it comes to food.

A few years ago, I was approached by a woman who claimed her entire family had got “food poisoning” after having a meal at a well-known “fast-food” outlet.

Medico-legalese

She requested compensation from the company for doctor’s bills, medicine and loss of earnings, and in response, the company’s attorneys told her why that wasn’t going to happen, in heavy medico-legalese: “causal link”, “contaminate”, “pathogens”…

Merely saying you “got food poisoning” from something you ate in a restaurant won’t cut it, not unless the same thing happened to many other diners, who shared their awful experience on social media.

Given that it’s the season of food poisoning in KZN, in particular, here are 10 ways to prevent it at home. Merry Christmas!

1 Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before handling food, after handling raw food – meat, fish, eggs and vegetables – after touching the bin, going to the toilet, blowing your nose or touching animals.
2 Wash worktops before and after preparing food, especially if they’ve been touched by raw meat, eggs, fish and vegetables. You don’t need antibacterial sprays; hot, soapy water is fine.
3 Wash dishcloths regularly and let them dry before using again.
4 Use separate chopping boards to prepare raw food, such as meat and fish, to avoid contaminating ready-to-eat foods with harmful bacteria that can be present in raw food before it has been cooked.
5 Keep raw meat away from ready-to-eat foods, such as salad, fruit and bread. This is because these foods won’t be cooked before you eat them, so any bacteria that get on to the foods from the raw meat won’t be killed. Store raw meat on the bottom shelf of the fridge, where it can’t touch or drip on to other foods.

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before handling food, after handling raw food – meat, fish, eggs and vegetables – after touching the bin, going to the toilet, blowing your nose or touching animals.

6 Cook food thoroughly. Make sure poultry, pork, burgers, sausages and kebabs are cooked until steaming hot, with no pink meat inside. The safest way to kill all traces of campylobacter is by cooking chicken thoroughly.
7 Don’t wash raw meat before cooking, as this can spread bacteria in the kitchen. Freezing raw chicken reduces the levels of campylobacter bacteria, but doesn’t eliminate them completely. The safest way to kill campylobacter is by cooking chicken thoroughly.
8 Keep your fridge below 5C and avoid overfilling it: if it’s too full, air can’t circulate properly, affecting the overall temperature.
9 Cool leftovers quickly. If you have cooked food that you’re not going to eat straight away, cool it as quickly as possible (within 90 minutes) and store it in the fridge or freezer. Use any leftovers from the fridge within two days.
10 Respect “use-by” dates. Don’t eat food that’s past its use-by date, even if it looks and smells okay. Use-by dates are based on scientific tests that show how quickly harmful bugs can develop in the packaged food.