1 October 2019


While we tend to focus on the importance of eating healthy foods, meals and diets for longevity, and for the prevention of lifestyle-related diseases like certain kinds of cancer (e.g., bowel), diabetes (type 2), heart disease and stroke, food safety is an extremely important issue that is often overlooked.

FOODBORNE ILLNESS This is a significant cause of acute illness and even death in developed nations like Australia (an estimated 5.4 million cases of food poisoning each year), Canada (estimated 4 million cases each year) and the USA (estimated 48 million cases each year) and unfortunately it appears to be increasing worldwide. Foodborne illness is caused by contaminated foods and drinks. Common contaminants include:

  • Pathogens – unwanted bacteria, moulds and viruses in foods and beverages 
  • Environmental contaminants – heavy metals (e.g., lead, mercury, cadmium, etc.) and organic halogenated compounds (e.g., DDT, polychlorinated biphenols, dioxins, etc.); pesticides (plant-foods) and veterinary drugs (animal-foods); contaminants formed during food production and cooking (e.g., acrylamide); contaminants arising from food packaging (e.g., bisphenol A (BPA), or natural toxins in food (e.g., aflatoxins in maize and peanuts) 
  • Adulterants – the deliberate debasing of the quality of a food or beverage by the admixture or substitution (e.g., sand, marble chips, stones, chalk powder) of inferior substances/ingredients into common foods (e.g., flours, legumes, milk, coffee, etc.). 
Around 60–80% of foodborne illnesses are due to problems that occur during growing, processing, distributing or selling foods and beverages. Food producers, manufacturers, retailers, restaurants and other distributors are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the food we buy is safe, and Government food regulators are responsible for setting standards (e.g. regulating pesticide and antibiotic use; permitted contaminant levels, etc.), providing oversight (e.g., site inspection, market basket surveys/audits, coordinating recalls, etc.) and ultimately penalising offending companies.

When foods or beverages are found to be contaminated, food recall action is taken by a food business to remove unsafe food from distribution, sale and consumption. All food businesses must be able to quickly remove food from the marketplace to protect public health and safety. It may surprise you to learn that food businesses initiate most recalls. However, Government food authorities usually coordinate and monitor the recall process.

In Australia and other developed nations, foods prepared in the home account for 20–40% of foodborne illness. The main causes of foodborne illness at home are:
  • Contaminated food storage and preparation areas 
  • Unsafe raw food 
  • Inadequate cooking 
  • Improper holding temperatures 
  • Contaminated equipment (such as knives, cutting boards and dishcloths) 
  • Allowing raw foods to make direct contact with ready-to-eat foods 
  • Poor personal hygiene of food handlers (such as not washing hands adequately, particularly after handling raw food or immediately after using the bathroom/toilet). 
Foods that are considered higher risk because pathogens can be naturally present and grow if they are not stored and prepared safely, include:
  • Raw and cooked meat or foods containing raw or cooked meat 
  • Seafood and foods containing seafood 
  • Dairy products and foods containing dairy products 
  • Processed foods containing eggs or other protein-rich food 
  • Cooked rice and pasta 
  • Processed fruit and vegetables such as salads 
  • Foods that contain any of the above foods (e.g. sandwiches). 
Fruit salad
Always check use by dates, avoid cross-contamination, cook foods adequately and store them at safe temperatures, and check the foods for unpleasant odours before eating or drinking.

FOOD POISONING? If you have food poisoning, you’ll probably have gastro-intestinal symptoms such as abdominal cramps, diarrhoea or vomiting, or flu-like symptoms. You should always seek medical advice if you’re in a high-risk group (infants, elderly, pregnant or breast-feeding women or immune-compromised) or have any of the following symptoms:
  • Frequent vomiting 
  • Bloody vomit or stools 
  • Diarrhoea for more than three days in a row 
  • Extremely painful abdominal cramping 
  • A temperature higher than 38.6°C (101.5°F) 
  • Dehydration from repeated vomiting or diarrhoea 
  • Blurry vision, muscle weakness or tingling in the arms. 
TREATMENT: For a mild case of food poisoning, you may try sucking ice chips, replenishing fluids and electrolytes when you’re ready and easing back into your normal diet and routine. For more serious cases, see your doctor. Don’t forget to contact your local food enforcement agencies and report the illness to help prevent others from getting it.

Read more:
Dr Alan Barclay
Alan Barclay, PhD is a consultant dietitian and chef (Cert III). He worked for Diabetes Australia (NSW) from 1998–2014 . He is author/co-author of more than 30 scientific publications, and author/co-author of  The good Carbs Cookbook (Murdoch Books), Reversing Diabetes (Murdoch Books), The Low GI Diet: Managing Type 2 Diabetes (Hachette Australia) and The Ultimate Guide to Sugars and Sweeteners (The Experiment, New York).

Contact: You can follow him on Twitter or check out his website.