Overview

Good food hygiene means knowing how to avoid the spread of bacteria when cooking, preparing, and storing food. Foods that aren't cooked, stored and handled correctly can cause food poisoning and other conditions.

4 steps to food safety

There are 4 basic steps to food safety at home:

  • cleaning - making sure your hands and surfaces are clean before, during and after cooking
  • storing - making sure foods are kept separate to prevent cross-contamination
  • preparing - knowing which foods are safe to wash and clean when preparing meals
  • cooking - making sure food is cooked throughout to kill harmful bacteria

Cleaning

The bacteria that cause food poisoning can be found in many places around your kitchen. Unless you take care to clean your hands, surfaces and utensils properly, this bacteria could end up in your food.

Wash your hands

You should always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water:

  • before, during and after preparing food
  • after handling uncooked eggs, raw meat, seafood and unwashed fruit and vegetables
  • after touching the bin, going to the toilet, blowing your nose or touching your pets

There's a right way and a wrong way to wash your hands. To do it correctly:

  • wet your hands and apply soap
  • rub your hands together to make a lather
  • scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails
  • after 20 seconds of scrubbing, rinse your hands well with warm water
  • dry your hands thoroughly using a clean towel

Clean worktops

Wash worktops, utensils and chopping boards with warm, soapy water before and after food preparation to prevent bacteria from spreading. This is especially important if you've been preparing raw meat, shellfish or vegetables.

If possible, use different utensils and chopping boards for raw and ready to eat foods to keep them separate.

As an extra precaution, you can create a disinfectant using a tablespoon of bleach in 4 litres of water. This will kill any remaining bacteria.

Clean dishcloths

As dirty and damp dishcloths are the perfect place for bacteria to breed, wash dishcloths and tea towels regularly and let them dry before use.

You should wash dishcloths and tea towels using the hot cycle of your washing machine.

Storing produce

Even after you’ve cleaned your hands and surfaces thoroughly, bacteria can still be spread if food isn't stored correctly and used within a certain amount of time - especially if the food carries a 'use by' date.

Chilling food

Your fridge can help to keep foods fresh and safe to eat for longer as the cold temperature slows the growth of bacteria.

Your fridge temperature needs to be at 5C or below to be most effective.

What you can store

Foods labelled with a 'use by' or 'keep refrigerated' label can be stored in the fridge. This includes:

  • dairy produce - such as milk, cheese and butter
  • raw and cooked meat
  • eggs
  • fresh fruit and vegetables
  • ready meals

Storing eggs

Eggs are best stored in the fridge as they are kept at a constant temperature. You can safely store a boiled egg in the fridge for a couple of days.

You can also freeze boiled and raw (unshelled) eggs.

Storing raw meat and fish

To stop bacteria from spreading, store raw meat, fish and poultry in sealed containers on the bottom shelf of your fridge and never eat after it's "use-by" date.

Storing cooked and "ready to eat" foods

Foods that have been cooked or labelled "ready to eat" - such as cooked meats, pastries and cheese - should always be kept seperate from raw meats.

To prevent bacterial growth, cooked foods should be cooled to room temperature and refrigerated within 2 hours. Splitting cooked food into smaller portions can help it to cool quicker. Never put hot foods in the fridge or freezer.

The colder temperatures make hot food cool unevenly, increasing the risk of food poisoning.

Freezing food

Most types of foods can be frozen, however, the extreme cold can affect the quality of foods with a high water content - such as fresh fruit and salad vegetables (cucumber, tomatoes). These foods are still fine to cook with, but are better eaten from the fridge.

As the cold air will cause foods to dry out, always store frozen foods in air tight containers or freezer bags.

Freezing meat and fish

You can freeze all types of meat, fish and poultry as long as:

  • it's within its use by date
  • you wrap it properly to prevent damage from dehydration and oxidation - known as "freezer burn"

Frozen meat and fish will keep and be safe to eat for a long time, however, you should try to eat these foods within 3 to 6 months as the quality can be affected. Adding a label and date to frozen meat and fish can help with this.

Defrosting

You should defrost meat and fish thoroughly before cooking. Once defrosted these foods need to be eaten or thrown away within 24 hours.

A microwave is a great way to thaw these foods if you intend to cook it straight away. If you have more time, put it at the bottom of your fridge overnight.

Re-freezing

Raw meat, fish and poultry can't be frozen again after they've been defrosted.

Cooked meat, fish and poultry can be frozen as long as they've been cooled. You should only refreeze these foods once after cooking as the more times you cool and reheat food, the higher the risk of food poisoning.

Foods stored in the freezer, such as ice cream and frozen desserts, should not be returned to the freezer once they have thawed.

Preparing food

Before preparing any food, remember to wash your hands, utensils and work surfaces thoroughly to prevent the spread of bacteria.

Clean fruit and vegetables

You should always wash fruit and vegetables before you eat them to remove any surface dirt or bacteria. Peeling or cooking can also remove these germs.

To do this correctly:

  1. Cut away any damaged or bruised areas
  2. Rinse using cold water - never use soap or detergent
  3. Scrub firm produce with a clean brush
  4. Dry with a paper towel or clean cloth towel

You don't need to wash produce that's labelled as "Ready to use" or "Ready to eat" as it's already been cleaned and prepared.

Don't wash meat, fish, poultry and eggs

You should never wash raw meat or poultry as this can spread bacteria around your sink and work surface.

Eggs are usually washed during the processing and packing process. If you wash them at home and one of the shells has cracked, you risk spreading bacteria.

Use separate cutting boards and plates for produce and for meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs

Cross-contamination

To prevent the spread of bacteria when preparing foods:

  • keep raw and ready-to-eat produce separate
  • use different cutting boards, plates and utensils for fresh and raw produce
  • wash your hands, worktops and utensils thoroughly after preparing raw meat, poultry, fish and eggs

Cooking and reheating

Harmful bacteria can be killed by cooking and reheating food to the right temperature. Cooked foods should be steaming (piping) hot throughout to be safe to eat.

Cooking meat and poultry

Most raw meat must be cooked throughout before being safe to eat. Only beef steaks, whole joints of beef, lamb chops and whole joints of lamb can be served underdone (rare).

Chicken, duck, pork and offal

Chicken, duck, pork and offal should always be cooked through until the core temperature reaches 75°C and the juices run clear. This will kill any harmful bacteria.

These type of meats should never be eaten pink or rare.

Beef and lamb

Some beef and lamb steaks and whole joints (not rolled) can be served rare as long as they've been cooked quickly at high temperatures (sealed) on the outside.

Always cook burgers and sausages made from these meats all the way through. This will kill harmful bacteria - including E. coli O157 - that might have been present on the surface of the meat and then mixed through after mincing and forming into burgers

If possible, use a meat thermometer to ensure that the internal temperature reaches 75°C and make sure there's no pink in the middle and the juices run clear.

How to tell when meat is cooked

If you have a food thermometer, the internal temperature should reach 75°C.

If you don't have a food thermometer: the meat:

  • shouldn't be pink in the middle
  • juices should run clear
  • should be steaming hot throughout

To check whole birds, pierce the thickest part of the leg. For thicker joints, pierce the centre.

Cooking fish, shellfish and crustacea

Although most fish and some shellfish (muscles, oysters) and crustacea (prawns, lobster) can be eaten raw, cooking will kill any bacteria present. If you choose to eat raw fish and shellfish, make sure that it's been frozen first as the cold temperature will kill any parasites.

Never cook and eat any shellfish if the shell doesn't close. Raw shellfish should always be cooked alive.

How to tell if fish, shellfish and crustacea is cooked

If you have a food thermometer, the internal temperature should reach 62C.

If you don't have a food thermometer:

  • Fish flesh will turn opaque (loses its transparency) and flake easily with a fork
  • Shrimp and lobster flesh will turn opaque
  • Scallops will become firm and turn opaque
  • Mussel, whelk and oyster shells will open - never eat shellfish if the shell remains closed after cooking

Cooking on a barbecue

Undercooked foods and cross-contamination are the greatest risks when using a barbeque. Cooking food in the oven before finishing on the barbeque is a great way to ensure food is cooked all the way through.

To ensure food is safe to eat:

  • defrost meat thoroughly before cooking - ideally in your fridge
  • keep meat and "ready to eat" foods - such as salad and bread - separate
  • regularly turn and move around to cook evenly

You'll know when your barbeque is at the right temperature for cooking when the coals are glowing red and have a powdery grey surface. Never cook food over flames as the outside will burn, but the inside will be raw and unsafe to eat.

Reheating cooked food

When reheating food from the fridge or freezer, make sure that it:

  • is steaming hot and cooked all the way through
  • has been heated to 75°C for at least 2 minutes

Use chilled food within 2 days of cooking. If the food has been cooked, frozen and defrosted, reheat within 24 hours.

You should only ever reheat food once. The more times you cool and reheat food, the higher the risk of food poisoning.

Also on NHS inform