Bad things can happen when you don’t quite realise the significance of food hygiene. Most of it is common sense but not everyone has had the good fortune to watch Mama in the kitchen for 18 years, this is the 21st century for goodness sake. So here are a few wise tips for keeping your dinner going the right way through you.

In food factories they have two zones: High Care for food that is not going to be cooked to kill bacteria before being eaten, and Low Care which is food that will be cooked to kill bacteria before eating. It is important that Low care stuff does not contaminate High Care stuff. For example:

Raw chicken and pork: Never let raw chicken and pork products come into contact with anything that is going into your mouth without further cooking, such as salads, forks and spoons etc. Even cutting salad on the same board that raw chicken has been on can cause contamination. Keep High Care and Low Care separate, and wash boards, utensils and your hands when moving from Low Care to High Care. The other way round doesn’t matter.

Eggs: Would you put your hands on a chicken’s bum? That is where the egg has come from and in the UK, eggs are not washed before sale. After touching an egg, maybe to break it into your recipe, wash your hands before touching anything else. In the UK, eggs last three weeks or more at room temperature before going off. In the USA where they are more squeamish about these things, eggs are washed. The down-side of this is the water actually washes bacteria into the pores of the shell so the shelf-life of US eggs is days, not weeks.

Messing with food: The more food is processed before cooking, the shorter the shelf-life. A whole meat carcass can last a month in the chiller. Once it is jointed, shelf-life reduces and highly processed cuts like cubed meat and mince has a very short shelf life – a few days only in the fridge, hours only at room temperature.

Gas: Packaged food is often “flooded” (industry term) with an inert gas like nitrogen to exclude other gases that allow bacteria to grow. This is fine and dandy, but the shelf-life on the packet assumes the gas is still in there. As soon as you puncture the packet by opening, or the gas leaks through a bad seal, bacteria will start to grow and the printed shelf life is no longer valid. Best to eat quickly once opened! This is particularly true for salad leaves (see Messed With above) and mince.

Sell-By/Eat-By and Best Before dates: by law all packaged food has to have one of these dates stamped on it. Perishable food that might cause you harm if eaten after too long has a Sell By and Eat By date. This is a date worked out in a laboratory and has a margin of safety built in. It also assumes the food is being kept at the recommended temperature. So already you can see it is not accurate! You still have to rely on your eyes and nose to tell is something is dodgy. If it looks bad it is bad. If it doesn’t look bad it is probably OK – for example yogurt kept in a fridge can last a couple of weeks past its Sell-By date.  Best Before dates are exactly that – better before and worse after but not deadly.  If you don’t mind the taste not being as good, or the colour fading or the texture not being quite right, you can eat food after the Best Before date but again, if it looks bad it is bad.

Dried beans: Some you have to soak, some not. Either way, when you cook them, boil like crazy for ten minutes then cook as the recipe requires for the rest of the time. This is because dried pulses carry toxins which need to be zapped by a hard boil and are not zapped by a long simmer, which is probably what you were planning to do.

The fridge! Yes, danger lurks within for the unwary. A fridge needs to operate at 5deg C or below to minimise the chance of bacteria growing and turning into toxins that will make you ill. Also, make sure  Low Care foods (see above) don’t contact High Care food. Here is a quick Tip List For The Fridge:

  • Buy a fridge thermometer and make sure the fridge thermostat dial is set so the inside temperature is below 5deg C
  • Make sure the door shuts properly and don’t leave it open too long – this allows the fridge to warm up.
  • Never put warm items of food into the cold fridge. Let them cool to room temperature first otherwise you will warm up the entire fridge
  • Never allow uncooked meat such as chicken and pork products to touch food that won’t be cooked before you eat it (High Care) such as salads and cheese.
  • Never put uncooked meat above High Care products because juices containing harmful bacteria can drip down.
  • Don’t put cucumber, lettuce and strawberries in a very cold fridge (0-2 deg C) because they will freeze and turn to mush when they thaw. Disgusting but won’t actually kill you.