The Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) is reminding residents to safeguard themselves against bacterial infections and foodborne diseases throughout summer by practicing good food hygiene and avoiding eating contaminated food.
According to Dr. Galal Saleh Alessai, Emergency Physician and Medical Toxicologist at the Emergency Department in Hamad General Hospital (HGH), one of the most common illnesses seen at the Emergency Department during hot summer months is food poisoning. “Food poisoning is an acute illness that occurs when bacteria, viruses or other germs are absorbed by food substances consumed by people,” Dr. Alessai explained, adding that “bacterial growth in food is likely to occur when food is not kept cold enough.”
“Common symptoms and signs of food poisoning include nausea and vomiting, abdominal cramps or pain, diarrhea, fever, bloody stool, and in severe cases, shock and collapse,” Dr. Alessai mentioned.
Although anyone can be affected with the illness, certain groups of people are at an increased risk and should be extra cautious. “Elderly people, children under 5 years of age, people with a serious illness or disease such as diabetes, pregnant women, people with a compromised immune system, people who are taking medication such as steroids, antibiotics or antihistamines, or those who travel frequently are at a greater risk of contracting the illness,” Dr. Alessai highlighted.
HMC’s Food Hygiene Supervisors, Mr. Joegi C. Ramos and Mr. Ginesh George explained that temperature and time are the two most crucial factors leading to bacterial growth in food. When preparing food, people should be mindful of the temperature danger-zone, which ranges from five to 63 degrees Celsius.
Mr. Ramos explained that any cooked food, which is high in proteins, should not be exposed under these temperatures, for more than two hours, as this will result in multiplication of microorganisms that are responsible for foodborne illnesses.
“During this time, the risk of physical contamination also increases through the possibility of insect or human contact.”
If the time and temperature guidelines are not adhered to, presence of moisture may build up in the cooked food, increasing the possibility of the food becoming microbiologically contaminated.
“It is therefore recommended not to leave cooked rice under room-temperature for a long period of time as moisture will accumulate in the container and allow the growth of bacteria,” Mr. George said.
“While there may be many other factors that contribute to food contamination and allows the onset of this illness, some of the significant ones are microbiological factor caused by bacteria such as Salmonella found in raw meat, milk, eggs, and poultry, Bacillus Cereus found in cereals, rice, herbs, and dried foods, and Vibrio Paraheamolyticus found in different kinds of seafood,” he added.
Mr. Ramos stated that if certain food products are not handled properly, they could be considered to be at high-risk of food poisoning.
“This includes raw food, ready-to-eat food exposed for significant amounts of time to higher temperatures, all cooked meat and poultry, or any food that is rich in protein,” he said, adding: “Improperly stored cooked-chilled meals and stock, unpasteurized dairy products, mayonnaise, home-made ice-cream, and even hummus are also deemed to be at high risk of food poisoning.”
The food hygiene supervisors mentioned a few important steps for preventing food contamination.
“The most important thing is to cook food to be consumed on the same day. Cooking in advance, for instance for lunch or dinner parties the next day, is not advised, mainly because storing cooked food correctly is something that people often ignore,” Mr. George said.
“When storing food items in the refrigerator, make sure you place high-risk foods, including cooked meals on the top shelf, and place raw items toward the bottom to avoid cross-contamination.”
Improper thawing or defrosting is another important thing that people often overlook. “Most of the time, people tend to defrost frozen chicken in the kitchen sink under running water. It is important to check the temperature of the water, which should not be above 21 degrees Celsius. It is highly advisable to use cold running water for this purpose,” he said.
“Also ensure your frozen item is not removed from its packing or cover. If it remains sealed, chances of any contamination are more easily avoided, and its nutrients content is most likely preserved,” Mr. Ramos said.
While cooling freshly prepared food, George advised using the ice-bathing procedure so the time of exposure under room temperature is lessened.
“If you are cooking a solid item, make sure you cut it into small pieces, place it in a shallow container, close the container, and put it in the basin with crushed ice or chilled water under it. This will speed up the cooling process,” he said.
Both Food Hygiene Supervisors stressed that personal hygiene is of utmost importance to avoid any kind of contamination.
“This is not just limited to hand washing but also includes making sure the person preparing food is well groomed. Covering hair while cooking is highly encouraged as fallen hair in the food can also cause contamination,” George said, adding: “Other things to remember include making sure the table or counter where food is being prepared is kept clean as well as the kitchen tools or equipment being used; in addition to making sure that the kitchen is pest-controlled and well managed.