Preparing food safely

It's very important to prepare food safely to help stop harmful bacteria from spreading and growing. You can take some simple steps to help protect yourself and your family from the spread of harmful bacteria.

Wash your hands

Your hands can easily spread bacteria around the kitchen and onto food. This is why it's important to always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water at each of these times:

  • before starting to prepare food
  • after touching raw food such as meat, poultry and vegetables
  • after going to the toilet
  • after touching the bin
  • after touching pets

Don't forget to dry your hands thoroughly as well, because if they are wet they will spread bacteria more easily.

Keep worktops clean

Before you start preparing food, it’s important to make sure that your worktops, kitchen utensils and chopping boards are clean. If they’ve been touched by raw meat, poultry, eggs or vegetables you'll need to wash them thoroughly.

Don't forget to change dish cloths and tea towels regularly. They may look clean, but they're the perfect place for bacteria to grow.

Separate raw food, including meat/fish and vegetables from ready-to-eat food

Raw foods such as meat, fish and vegetables may contain harmful bacteria that can spread very easily to anything they touch, including other foods, worktops, chopping boards and knives.

It's especially important to keep raw foods away from ready-to-eat food, such as salad, fruit and bread. This is because these types of food won't be cooked before you eat them, so any bacteria that get onto the food won't be killed.

To help stop bacteria from spreading, remember these things:

  • don't let raw food such as meat, fish or vegetables touch other food
  • never prepare ready-to-eat food using a chopping board or knife that you have used to prepare raw food, unless they have been washed thoroughly first
  • always wash your hands thoroughly after touching raw meat, fish or vegetables and before you touch anything else
  • always cover raw meat or fish and store them on the bottom shelf of the fridge where they can't touch or drip onto other foods
  • don’t wash raw meat before cooking it. Washing doesn't get rid of harmful bacteria – the only way to do this is by cooking the food thoroughly. If you wash raw meat or fish you also run the risk of splashing bacteria onto worktops and utensils
  • unless packaging around vegetables says ‘ready-to-eat’ you must wash, peel or cook them before consuming

Check the label

Another important stage when you’re preparing food – to help keep you and your family safe – is to have a look at the food labels to make sure everything you’re going to use has been stored correctly (according to any storage instructions) and that none of the food is past its ‘use by’ date.

You will find that food that goes off quickly usually has storage instructions on the label that say how long you can keep the food and whether it needs to go in the fridge.

This sort of food often has special packaging to help keep it fresh for longer. But it will go off quickly once you’ve opened it. This is why the storage instructions also tell you how long the food will keep once the packaging has been opened. For example, you might see ‘eat within 2 days of opening’ on the label.

You will also see ‘use by’ dates on food that goes off quickly. You shouldn’t use any food after the ‘use by’ date even if the food looks and smells fine, because it might contain harmful bacteria.

The 'best before' dates marked on most foods are more about quality than safety. When this date runs out, it doesn't mean that the food will be harmful, but its flavour, colour or texture might begin to deteriorate.

About a third of the food we buy ends up being thrown away and most of this could have been eaten. So think carefully before throwing away food that is past its 'best before' date.

An exception to this is eggs, which have a best before date of no more than 28 days after they are laid. After this date the quality of the egg will deteriorate and if any Salmonella bacteria are present, they could multiply to high levels and could make you ill. If you do intend to use an egg after its best before date, make sure that you only use it in dishes where it will be fully cooked, so that both yolk and white are solid, such as in a cake or as a hard-boiled egg.

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