Preventing the spread of germs

It is essential to keep work surfaces and fridges clean to prevent the spread of bacteria. You should also wash and dry your hands carefully to avoid spreading germs and bacteria.

Cleaning

Your hands  can carry germs. Germs are  invisible and can easily spread to food, making you and other people ill.

Keep yourself and your kitchen clean by washing and drying your hands thoroughly:

  • before preparing food
  • after touching raw food, especially meat and vegetables
  • after going to the toilet

Germs spread more easily on damp hands. Keep yourself and your family safe by drying washed hands thoroughly.

Find out more about how to clean hands, equipment and surfaces to prevent harmful bacteria from spreading onto food from the Food Standards Agency website.

Cleaning in a kitchen

Keep worktops, chopping boards and utensils clean. If they’ve been touched by raw food such as meat, poultry, vegetables or eggs, you'll need to wash them thoroughly.

Change dish cloths and tea towels regularly. Germs can breed on cloths and towels.

Cooking

You can kill certain germs such as salmonella and E. coli by thorough cooking. When preparing food: 

  • always follow the instructions on the label
  • always check your food is steaming hot in the middle – there should be steam coming out
  • don't reheat food more than once
  • when reheating, take extra care your food is cooked all the way through

It's important to make sure poultry, pork, burgers and sausages are cooked all the way through. If there's any pink meat or the juices are pink or red, there could be germs.

Some meat, such as steaks and joints of beef or lamb, can be served rare as long as the outside has been properly cooked.

Chilling

Make sure you put the right foods in the fridge – look out for a 'use by' date or 'keep refrigerated' on the label.

By storing food safely in the fridge, you can reduce the risk of germs.  It is important to:

  • keep food at the right temperature (between 0°C and 5°C)
  • keep the fridge door closed as much as possible
  • wait for food to cool down before you put it in the fridge

If the fridge is full, turn the temperature down to fight germs.

Some germs can grow at cold temperatures – even in the fridge. To keep food safe, eat leftovers within two days.

Keep food out of the fridge for the shortest time possible and when you're eating outside at a barbecue or picnic, use a cool bag or cool box.

If you're putting out food for a party, don't leave it out for more than four hours. 

Cross-contamination

It is important to prevent cross-contamination which spreads germs around the kitchen. Cross-contamination between foods can cause food poisoning.

To help prevent food poisoning:

  • keep raw food such as meat, poultry and vegetables separate from ready-to-eat food
  • don't let raw meat drip onto other food – keep it in sealed containers at the bottom of your fridge
  • wash the chopping board and knife thoroughly if you use these for raw food  and then ready-to-eat food 
  • don't wash meat before cooking it
  • unless packaging around vegetables says ‘ready-to-eat’ you must wash, peel or cook them before eating

Listeria

If you’re over 60, pregnant, unwell or have a long-term medical condition, you’re at higher risk from listeria. 

Listeria is a type of food poisoning bacteria that can live and grow in food – chilled food in particular, for example pâté, cooked sliced meats, soft cheeses and smoked fish.

How to avoid listeria

The 'use by' date

You will see 'use by' dates on food that goes off quickly. To avoid listeria bacteria growing in food,  store in the fridge and eat, cook or freeze it by the 'use by' date on the label.

Even if the food looks and smells fine, using it after the 'use by' date could put your health at risk. Don't take the chance, put it in your food recycling bin.

The temperature of your fridge

Make sure your fridge is cold enough because this will help stop food poisoning bacteria like listeria growing in your food. Your fridge should be between 0ºC and 5ºC (32ºF and 41ºF).

If you’re not sure how the temperature setting or dial works on your fridge, you could use a fridge thermometer to check it’s the right temperature.

The storage instructions for your food

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, once you open it, the food will go off quickly.

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 two days of opening’ on the label.

You can keep some foods for longer if you freeze them, as long as you freeze them before the ‘use by’ date.

Always check and follow any storage instructions on the label carefully.

Food poisoning

When you eat food containing certain bacteria, this can cause food poisoning. To read about symptoms of food poisoning, go to:

How bacteria grow

Bacteria grows in warm, moist conditions. Bacteria reproduce by dividing themselves, so one bacterium becomes two, two become four, and so on.

This means that if a food is contaminated with a small number of bacteria and you leave it out of the fridge overnight, it could be seriously contaminated by the next day. One mouthful could make you ill. Putting food in the fridge stops bacteria from multiplying.

You can't see, taste or smell bacteria. The only way you can be sure that food is safe is to follow food hygiene advice.

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