Bacteria are an important part of life on Earth. They use enzymes to break down dead matter and convert it back into a form that can be used to create new life. For example, manure and composted food waste are used to feed farm crops or plants in the garden. You might recall the nitrogen cycle and the carbon cycle from chemistry class in high school. Bacteria are vital for these life cycles to continue to work.
Some of these bacteria are able to produce toxins as a personal defence mechanism or they have special ways to avoid our immune system and make a home among our cells, causing an infection. When we have an infection in our gut we call it gastroenteritis, or gastro for short. Several different types of bacteria and viruses can infect the human gut but the term gastro applies to any infection of the gut. The symptoms of gastro normally involve diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea as the infection disrupts the normal function of our digestive system. Sometimes it takes a large amount of pathogen to overcome our immune system, and other bacteria only need to grow to a small population before they can cause harm. So it’s safest to reduce your risk of infection at every step of the food prep and storage process.
The bacteria that can infect our digestive system like to live at around the human core temperature of 37°C. They thrive at this temperature. So if you have a fever or localised inflammation warming up the infection, this is the body’s way of trying to overheat and kill the infecting object, also known as a pathogen. This part of the immune system is non-specific to the kind of pathogen that is infecting the body. The body also has other non-specific immune system mechanisms and some of these are exploited by specific bacteria so that the pathogens can avoid the immune system.
So if some of these bacteria can get past our immune system how do we protect ourselves from being infected with such bacteria that could cause us harm?
How To Prevent Food Poisoning From Leftovers
1. Reheat leftovers properly:
You must reheat your leftovers to above 70°C to ensure any present bacteria are killed. However, bacterial toxins are not destroyed by heat and can still make you sick if there is bacteria present that is generating a toxin.
Freezing does not kill bacteria it just slows the growth down to the point of hibernation. The bacteria will begin to grow normally again when they are brought back up to their optimal temperature for life.
2. Store food properly:
Leftovers are safe to stay at 4°C (your usual fridge temperature) for up to 3-4 days. When you are ready to eat some of the leftover food you should transfer it from the refrigerated storage container to another vessel to heat if you aren’t going to finish it all in this sitting. This will reduce the amount of contamination you introduce to the storage container. If you put your dirty spoon in the container then put it back in the fridge the bacteria from your mouth/the kitchen bench, that is now on your spoon, will slowly grow (because it’s cold in the fridge) over the next couple of days and you run the risk of growing enormous amounts potential pathogens inside the container. Like a petri dish of bacteria sitting in all that delicious food. Loving life. Compared to the small amount of bacteria that can survive temporarily on your teeth will have no trouble increasing their population in your container of food. Have you ever left a container too long in the fridge only to find it has turned into a science experiment?
3. Prepare food properly:
Washing your hands before preparing food will massively reduce the risk of introducing harmful bacteria to the dish. Every time you rub your nose on the back of your hand the bacteria from your nose can be introduced to the dish by accident. If you’re wearing gloves to protect yourself or the ingredients from bacteria, make sure the gloves don’t touch your phone or your hair or skin. That negates the reason for the gloves as they are meant to contain and control the contamination of your work or yourself.
Wash your fresh fruits and vegetables before you eat or cook with them to remove any harmful bacteria and fungi that may have been introduced to the crop during the fertilisation process. Fertiliser is great for plants but not so much for humans.
Ensure cooking times and temperatures allow the entire dish of food to be brought into the “safe zone” above 60°C, particularly for risky meats like chicken and pork. Pathogens can’t normally survive above this temperature but sometimes your microwave doesn’t heat the food evenly, so give it a stir about halfway through reheating leftovers. Or the sausages in the oven need to be turned over halfway through cooking to make sure each section of the sausage has reached above 60°C.
Regarding the dangers of raw chicken and eggs:
Salmonella poisoning can occur if poultry isn’t prepared properly or if poultry manure has touched the surface of the meat or eggs then it is ingested by humans. The bacteria lives normally in the gut of chickens and other poultry. So this means chicken manure contains Salmonella. Sometimes chicken poop gets on the outside of your eggs and not every country washes the eggs before sale in the supermarket. So please always wash your hands after handling eggshells, sincerely, this germophobe right here (me).
But knowledge is power so I feel powerful enough to avoid food poisoning and I hope now you do too. Honestly, all those years of studying microbiology and the immune system at university has helped me through my germophobia and empowered me to live more freely.
Thanks so much for reading! Stay safe and keep your cup full of positivi-tea.
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