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7 ways to avoid food poisoning (and no, the sniff test isn’t one of them)

Woman stands in front of an open refrigerator, looking inside a pot of leftovers
Skip the sniff test and follow our food-safe tips instead.

So you’re hungrily digging through the fridge, looking for something quick to reheat. You spot some leftover chicken stir fry… was that from Monday night? Or maybe a few days earlier? Your nose knows best, so you crack the lid and give it the ‘sniff test’. Seems ok! You chuck it in the microwave and hey presto, dinner is sorted.

But a little while later you feel a suspicious grumble in your belly… you’re getting queasy… next minute you’re running for the loo. Perhaps the sniff test isn’t so foolproof after all.

Every year, thousands of Queenslanders suffer from foodborne illnesses after eating contaminated food. While food poisoning is unpleasant, it usually passes on its own. But sometimes, food poisoning can be very serious, and even life-threatening. It’s not only a risk for people who are more vulnerable to illness, like older adults – even young, healthy people can face long-term health issues from food poisoning.

Prevention is the best approach, so here’s what you can do to keep food poisoning at bay.

1. Keep it clean (including the kitchen sponge)

Everything you touch can transfer bacteria to your hands. To keep nasty bugs from contaminating your food, always wash your hands before preparing or eating food. Wash well for at least 20 seconds – that’s about two rounds of the ‘Happy Birthday to You’ tune. Always wash your hands after handling raw meat or eggs.

Make sure to clean your kitchen bench and equipment with hot soapy water. And don’t forget about the items that do all the cleaning – your kitchen cloths and tea towels, that is! Cloths used to wipe benches and equipment should be clean and sanitary to avoid cross-contamination between surfaces. Replace cloths frequently or wash and then soak them in a sanitiser (such as bleach) between uses. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) recommend that tea towels should be washed and dried between uses.

Close up of hands cleaning a dish with a soapy sponge and running water

2. Be careful with food poisoning favourites, meat and eggs

Raw meat (including poultry and seafood) and eggs are among the leading causes of food poisoning, so it’s important to take extra special care when storing, preparing, and cooking them.

First, make sure you cover raw meat when storing in the fridge – nobody wants raw meat dripping onto ready-to-eat foods! Store meat and eggs in a cool part of the fridge.

Always handle and prepare raw meat and eggs separately to cooked foods and foods that are eaten raw. For example, don’t prepare fruit, veggies or bread on a chopping board or with utensils you just used for raw meat.

Don’t wash raw meat or eggs either, as this can spread harmful bacteria around your kitchen, to other foods, and onto your skin. Always throw away eggs with cracked or dirty shells, both of which increase the risk of salmonella infection.

Remember to always cook meat thoroughly, especially minced meat, burger patties, sausages, rolled roasts, stuffed meats, rabbit, seafood and poultry.

3. Keep hot food hot and cold food cold

The bacteria that causes food poisoning grows more rapidly between 5°C and 60°C (the temperature danger zone). To reduce your risk of food poisoning, limit the time that food spends in the danger zone. For example:

  • Keep cold foods in the fridge until you need them, and put them back promptly
  • Limit the time between cooking and serving food
  • Thaw and reheat safely.

4. Thaw safely

Thawing food on the kitchen bench is risky business. That’s because the outside of the food item thaws first, reaching room temperature long before the centre has defrosted. Room temperature is right in the middle of the temperature danger zone, which means harmful bacteria will have the perfect conditions to multiply to dangerous levels or form toxins that can contaminate your food.

Instead, thaw in the fridge or microwave. Thawing in the fridge means the food is always at a safe temperature, while thawing in the microwave lessens the time spent in the temperature danger zone.

5. Be smart with leftovers

Found some leftovers on the kitchen bench from last night? Unfortunately, the only safe place for it is in the bin. Reheating won’t cut it – the food has been in the temperature danger zone for too long, giving bacteria time to produce heat-resistant spores or toxins that can make you seriously unwell.

And forget the ‘sniff test’ – the bacteria that causes food poisoning won't necessarily change the smell, appearance or taste of food.

In general, leftovers should be eaten within 24 hours. If the food is kept outside of the temperature danger zone for longer than 2 hours in a single period, or for more than 4 hours in total, throw it away.

If you’re making leftovers to save for busy weeks, make sure you are meal prepping safely. Read our bulk cooking blog to learn how to divide, cool, and store bulk meals. Make sure you reheat and serve leftovers steaming hot (not just warm) all the way through.

Stacked containers of leftovers in a refrigerator

6. Wash and store fruit and veg safely

Many hands could have touched your apple before it made it to your lunch box, which is why it’s always wise to wash fruit and veg before eating them raw or cooking them. This not only helps to remove bacteria, but it also removes soil that can harbour harmful bugs.

Some foods need more careful cleaning. For example, leek and lettuce can have dirt in their inner layers. Make sure you clean thoroughly, and where needed, rub gently with a vegetable brush or clean cloth to remove the dirt.

7. Follow use-by dates

Use-by dates tell you when the food must be consumed by, for health and safety reasons. Always follow use-by dates and don’t consume products that have expired.

Best Before dates indicate the last date when a food can be expected to retain its original quality. Foods past their Best Before date may still be safe to eat.

When to seek medical advice

The symptoms of food poisoning can include:

  • diarrhoea
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • abdominal cramps
  • fever and headaches.

If your symptoms are severe or symptoms persist for more than three days, it’s important to seek medical advice by visiting your doctor or calling 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84).

Last updated: 9 October 2019