Ensuring Food Safety During The Festive Season – By Ayo Oyoze Baje


The significant issue of the proper handling of sundry food items towards their  safety during the festive season of Christmas and New Year activities is highlighted here to save lives. What makes it even more important is the cooking of large volumes of variety of foods. Extreme care has to be taken therefore, as grievous mistakes could be made in post-harvest food handling.

The surest way to do this is to effectively monitor all the stages; right from the reception of raw materials to the final stage. In fact, there should be strict selection of wholesome food items, proper storage of raw materials, adherence to internationally accepted standards of cooking/processing, packaging, and  preservation. That includes both intermediate and finished products till they are served to the consumers. The irony is that the food prepared for human consumption also serves as a fertile breeding ground for disease-causing micro-organisms called pathogens to thrive.

These include Coliform bacteria, Salmonellae, the dangerous duo of Staphylococcus aureus and  Clostridium botulinum. Others are Vibro cholera, Eschericha coli, Baccilus  circus, yeasts and moulds. There should be proper storage and selection to eliminate these pathogens right from the raw materials stage.

Failure to do this could lead to disastrous consequences of food poisoning. The symptoms include vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, head ache, shivering, chest pain, suffocation and sometimes death! Yet, all these are clearly avoidable, with sustained food handling practices. Even fresh fruits and vegetables need to be washed well using clean water. But avoid too much squeezing which could lead to loss of vital vitamins. 

In addition, use of damaged fruits like broken tomatoes, wilted and yellow leafy vegetables should be avoided, if not used immediately. There should be good storage facilities for high moisture foods like fruits and vegetables. Diseased, mouldy or spotty fruits should be discarded. Generally, during storage there should be protection from environmental factors such as dust, microbes, sun, wind, smoke, poisonous gases from exhaust pipes of vehicles and also insecticides.

Additionally, attack from pests such as rodents, cockroaches, birds and insects should be prevented. And no matter the amount of food being prepared the selection of fresh, healthy food materials should be given adequate attention. The contaminated and diseased raw materials should be kept far away from the good ones. This would reduce the spread of pathogenic microbes.

Refrigerators and deep freezers are needed. Freezing is considered an effective method for preserving beef, poultry, fish and milk and of course, the famed Christmas turkey. It kills three quarters of all known bacteria and stops the growth of fungi. It inactivates most microbes by keeping them in the lag phase.

However, it should be noted that the dangerous bacterium Staphylococcus aureus which causes food poisoning is a psychrophile. It may not be drastically affected even by refrigeration as it grows between 6.8o C  to 8oC, produces toxins and because it is found in the throat and nostrils of human beings food handlers, especially cooks and those serving food must avoid spitting, coughing and nose picking.

In the absence of refrigerators, foods can be kept under chilling temperatures of between 0oC and 15oC. It prevents the deterioration of foods by reducing such bio-chemical reactions like autolysis in fish, loss of nutrients and moisture, aging in beef and cheese. Onions, apples and tomatoes which respire slowly have been found to keep well within this temperature range. Beans could be kept in deep freezers for 48 hours, removed and stored dry. Such beans remain safe for consumption for upward of three months. Do not eat or cook frozen meat that smells bad.

During storage, care must be taken to preserve food stuffs from being contaminated with insecticides. Cooking utensils, cooked and uncooked food should be kept away before the spraying with insecticides. Doors and windows should be opened to allow in fresh air. This reduces the concentration of the insecticide, rat poison, smoke repellents and other pesticides used.

Cooking should not be done in a hurry because it is the festival time. Inadequate time-and-temperature relationship during cooking could leave poisonous microbes in foods such as rice, chicken, meat-pie, dough-nut, scotch eggs, sandwiches and hamburgers. Avoid meat that turns pinkish in the middle after cooking. Since much rice would be cooked avoid cooked rice left at room temperature for more than two hours. It could easily be contaminated. Heat to 87.5oC and refrigerate. Canned foods should be warmed in oil, not water. Avoid tinned tomato with black, rusty ring as they may be contaminated.

For this period of festivities, foods like milk, ice cream, beer, wine and fruit juices should be pasteurized before refrigeration. Pasteurization means subjecting them to specific temperatures less than 100oC at pressure of one atmosphere. For instance, beer can be pasteurized at 60oC for 30 minutes, and wine at between 82oC to 86oC for 1 minute. The aim is to destroy the vegetative cells of bacteria, moulds and yeasts, as well as enzymes.

For the consumers to gain nutrients maximally from the food prepared, do not soak fish, meat, poultry for too long in water while washing them. Do not cook with much potash, called Kaun as it destroys Vitamins B and C.  Do not bleach palm oil so that its vitamin A content is retained. Heat the food prepared but do not burn as it produces poisonous chemicals. Meat bought from the open market could be contaminated with bacteria. Cook meat till it turns brownish or pinkish-brown.

The kitchen where the food is prepared should be spotlessly clean, and well- ventilated to allow for escape of greasy, smoky air while fresh air comes in. The table tops, draining boards and all containers should be easy to clean. There should be constant supply of clean drinking pretreated water, and enough hot water to wash utensils and cooking equipment. Waste paper basket containing remnants which flies could feed upon and transfer to the food being prepared should be kept away from the kitchen and emptied regularly.

Contaminated water, nylon or leaves used to wrap or package zobo, kunu, pure water, moi-moin have been found to be sources of coliform bacteria. Therefore, home makers should avoid the temptation to use water from questionable sources. Even after using soapy water to wash dishes it is still necessary to wash them thoroughly using hot water and drained. Do not use unwashed plates to serve food because you are in a hurry to satisfy many people during this festive season.

Also, the hygiene of those who prepare the food we eat should be of utmost importance; now and always. They should wear aprons or overalls, cover their hairs to prevent them falling into food. Coughing, spitting must be avoided. Cooks should not grow long nails. They should not handle dirty currencies or use the napkins for hand cleaning to cover their nostrils and mouth while sneezing. They should not allow sweat to drip off their faces or hands unto food!

Do not be tempted to overeat at this festive season. Instead of taking coffee and cola- based drinks along with food, drink vitamin A, C-and-fibre-rich fruits such as oranges, lime, pineapples, pawpaw and nuts to avoid constipation. Compliments of the Season to you all.

By Ayo Oyoze Baje is Nigeria’s first food technologist to practice as a journalist.

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