Summer entertaining can quickly turn sour if food isn't properly prepped, writes Niki Bezzant.
Things are heating up, and quickly, with summer seeming to come along in a rush. It means more time spent outside; more barbecues, more time spent eating and drinking outside too.
That also means – less fun, but worth being aware of – a spike in food-borne illnesses.
Every day, on average, 500 people get sick in New Zealand from food. About 40 per cent of those sicknesses are thought to be caused by unsafe food handling practices in our homes.
Food-borne illnesses are caused by bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter as well as fungi, parasites, viruses and toxins that can contaminate food.
In summer, when temperatures are hotter and we tend to entertain more, food can be sitting out for longer, making the perfect conditions for food-based bugs.
MPI's Food Safety arm tells us there are some simple things we can do to lower our risk of getting sick from our food.
It starts with washing our hands.
When I cook, I'm an almost compulsive hand-washer, to the amusement of some of my family. But it turns out this is a good thing: handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent pathogens from spreading to our food. To properly wash our hands we need to take a bit of time – at least 20 seconds, a surprisingly long time when you're doing it – and use soap and warm running water. Dry for 20 seconds using a clean, dry towel, too.
The other top food safety tips are called the "three Cs": clean, cook and chill.
Niki Bezzant: We are (only human in) what we eat
What the world needs now is love - and strawberries
This should be basic stuff: wash surfaces, chopping boards, dishes and utensils with soap and water; clean your benches and boards with bleach solution; use different sponges or cloths for the dishes, bench and floor; clean your food containers thoroughly.
Again, we know this one: cook things properly. Sounds simple, but there's lots of room for mis-steps, especially when we're on the move – barbecuing or camping or picnicking.
Rule number one is to keep raw and cooked foods separate, every step of the way: use different sets of utensils for raw and cooked meats; put cooked items on a clean plate, not the same plate you've used for raw meat (this is a common barbecue mis-step). It's especially important to cook chicken, mince, and sausages all the way through, until the juices run clear. For the barbecue, chicken and sausages can be pre-cooked if you want to relax and eliminate all risk on the grill.
Defrosting properly is important in summer too. While it's tempting to do it on the bench, it's safer to defrost food in the fridge. And when you're reheating leftovers, make sure they're steaming hot and only reheat once.
This one is important in summer. Don't leave food out at room (or air) temperature for more than two hours. That's because bacteria can more easily multiply at higher temperatures. Cover and refrigerate or freeze as soon as you can.
If you're cooking for the fridge or freezer, cool hot foods for 30 minutes before refrigerating, so you don't make the whole fridge warmer. And don't overfill your fridge.
There are a couple of surprising foods we might not think of as being associated with food poisoning.
Rice seems benign, but can harbour nasty pathogens, specifically Bacillus cereus, which can cause nausea and vomiting. They grow when rice has been cooled too slowly or not properly chilled, and they survive re-heating.
To avoid getting sick from rice, keep it hot, and don't leave it sitting out to cool down. Get it into the fridge as quickly as possible, and keep it there until you want to use it.
You might be wondering about sushi, which after all is often kept at room temperature. MPI says this is okay; sushi rice usually also contains sushi vinegar and a mixture of sugar and salt, which helps prevent the growth of nasties.
Raw sprouts such as alfalfa, radish, and mung bean sprouts, can carry harmful bacteria like Salmonella and E.coli.
MPI says shop-bought sprouts are generally safer because they're grown from suitable seeds, under controlled conditions, and should be safe to eat if stored according to the instructions on the label, and consumed before their use-by date. However, they say, "the risk of illness can never be completely eliminated for raw sprouts", and not to serve raw sprouts to people with compromised immunity like the very old, the very young and people who are pregnant or ill. It says the only way to make sprouts totally safe is to cook them – possibly not a prospect most of us would enjoy.
And finally: not a food, but a common kitchen tool: dishcloths. These can spread bacteria around if we're not careful with them, so we need to change them regularly, and clean them well. You can soak your dishcloths overnight in a shallow dish of water with 5 to 10 drops of household bleach, microwave them for 3 to 4 minutes on high, or put them through the hot wash cycle in the dishwasher.