While Europe is estimated to be the region with the lowest rate of foodborne infections in the world, hundreds of thousands of cases are reported in the European Union every year. 2 Many people fall ill from food that has not been properly prepared or stored at home, but the good news is that many cases are mild and we can all protect ourselves from foodborne infections by following a few simple rules.
What causes foodborne infections?
Foodborne infections, often referred to as “food poisoning”, result from the consumption of food contaminated with pathogens that cause disease. Symptoms can range from mild to severe depending on the cause and usually include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, weakness, loss of appetite, fever, muscle pain or chills. In severe cases, foodborne infections can lead to hospitalization or even death. Three important triggers of foodborne infections are: 3
- Bacteria and viruses: These can multiply in the body and make us ill. It may take some time for microbes to multiply to cause symptoms, so it may take a few days for symptoms to appear.
- Parasites: Depending on the type of parasite, it may take different lengths of time for symptoms to appear, and some people may not even notice that they have become infected.
- Toxins originating from living organisms such as bacteria or fungi. Since the toxins themselves cause the disease, the symptoms can occur within a few hours of eating contaminated food.
Most diseases break out at home
Food can be contaminated at any stage of the food chain, e.g. on the farm, slaughtering animals, processing, in catering kitchens and restaurants or at home. Keeping our food safe requires the efforts of everyone in the food chain.
In Europe, most reported foodborne infections have their origin at home, with bacteria (e.g. Campylobacter and Salmonella) and viruses (e.g. Norovirus) being considered as common causative agents. 2 If we follow some basic food hygiene rules, we can prevent getting sick.
Raw foods may contain invisible microbes that cause disease. These can be transferred by cross-contamination either directly (e.g. when raw meat comes into contact with cooked food) or indirectly (e.g. when vegetables for salad are cut with a knife with which raw meat was previously cut) to ready-to-eat food.
- Always wash your hands carefully with warm water and soap before processing food, and repeat this repeatedly during the preparation of food.
- Apply a waterproof bandage when you have cut yourself and do not prepare food for others if you are ill or have a skin infection.
- Wash fresh fruit and vegetables thoroughly with clean water before using them to remove possible contaminants from the surface.
- Store raw and cooked foods separately to prevent harmful microbes from spreading from raw foods to ready-to-eat foods.
- Use different kitchen utensils/cutting boards for raw and cooked food to avoid cross-contamination. The use of cutting boards with different colours for fruit/vegetables, fish/seafood, meat/poultry or raw/cooked food can help.
- Prepare and cut food on a clean work surface and, after use, clean all utensils and work surfaces thoroughly with hot water and detergent or in the dishwasher.
- Never wash raw chickens because the splash water can spread bacteria throughout the kitchen.
- Wash tablecloths, tea towels, towels and aprons frequently at high temperatures.
Heat food sufficiently
Uncooked or insufficiently cooked meat products and shellfish or untreated dairy products are a major source of foodborne infections. Cooking/heating food to at least 72°C over a period of 2 minutes kills most disease-causing microbes.
Tips for cooking/heating: 4,7,8
- Check the temperature with a cooking thermometer that you place in the middle of the food or in the thickest place for meat off the bone.
- Pieces of beef (e.g. steak, leg) or lamb (cutlet, leg) may be eaten bloody or medium, as they are unlikely to have harmful bacteria inside. The meat should be fried to kill bacteria on the surface.
- Minced meat/fish products (e.g. burgers, sausages or fish cakes) have a large surface area and are therefore more likely to be contaminated than pieces of meat as a whole. These foods should be cooked for 2 minutes at a core temperature of at least 72°C. The meat should be cooked at a temperature of at least 72°C for at least 2 minutes.
- For pork and poultry, the meat should no longer be pink. If you do not have a thermometer, prick the thickest part with a fork or skewer; the juice should be clear and not pink.
- Heat remainders of prepared food well. Cook soups and stews for at least 2 minutes.
- Remaining leafy vegetables, such as spinach, can be safely consumed if heated carefully.
Tips for cooling and storing leftovers can be found under Safe food storage at home.
Common foodborne infections and their symptoms