Friday was World Health Day honouring the foundation of the World Health Organisation 1in 1948. WHO says that health is ” a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease of infirmity” and that “Health is a fundamental right of all.” This is a goal that is worth remembering and celebrating. The theme this year for world health day was depression but I have chosen to talk on food poisoning.
Food Poisoning! Is it that big a problem? What causes it and what can be done to prevent it?
When we had a restaurant in NSW I had to undergo certification from the department of health in food preparation and safety standards. This was necessary we were told because of the increasing incidence of food poisoning. Were people were dropping like flies or was this yet another way of wasting a small business owner’s time and money whilst creating employment for yet another public servant. I asked what the statistics were wanting to know how many people died or were hospitalised in NSW from food poisoning. He couldn’t tell me. I wondered whether I, my husband and numerous other people I knew, including perhaps yourselves, were responsible for this sudden supposed jump in people falling victim to off food. Yes I have to admit I have rung an employer in the past claiming to be sick as a result of the Chinese food or the fish and chips I had eaten. It was a common excuse to use to have a day off work.
So just how big a problem is food poisoning? According to WHO 351,000 people die globally from food poisoning each year. Let’s put that in perspective. 56.5 million people each year die. 1.3 million people die from car accidents, 3 – 4 million from lung problems and over 1 million from malaria. Food poisoning in Australia causes 2.1 million work days lost per year. Between 2001 to 2011 the statistics were showing food poisoning in Australia had increased by 81%. Given these statistics it is worth looking at the causes.
Why does food poisoning occur? There are two main reasons 1) poor hygiene (most common cause) 2) A break in the cold chain that is letting food sit for prolonged periods between preparing and eating without refrigeration.
My husband and I have had 4 restaurants. Two of these on a remote island in the Pacific. When we first arrived on the island of Tanna we had no refrigeration and we managed the cold chain by keeping all our food alive until it was ordered. This caused the odd problem when a chicken proved elusive and the guests watched as our waiter ran around the restaurant , cleaver in hand, chasing the bird. On one occasion our last chicken flew up a tree and even the nimble coconut tree climbing gardeners were unable to catch it.
Our life became easier when we set up our electrical system allowing us to use refrigeration.
Throughout this time our hygiene was exemplary. A couple of guests concerned with hygiene asked to inspect our kitchen before they would eat the food. During the course of their stay they wanted to try some kava. This was obtained from the only kava bar on the island (elsewhere it was prepared by virgin boys who chewed it and spat it out repeatedly.) The couple enjoyed the kava dreaming and the next night decided to go to the kava bar themselves. They returned soon after leaving, white faced, and said to me “ and we were worried about your kitchen. They were straining the kava through a pair of used ladies underpants.”
One food we never ate or served in Vanuatu was lettuce. Lettuce is a common cause of food poisoning. The health department in NSW has taken them off the menu in health facilities for this reason as lettuce cannot be boiled. This was good for us in our restaurant as many of the oldies came to us as we served a great salad. Always make sure you wash your salad items.
Other common foods that cause food poisoning are:
Eggs — always store in the fridge with cooked eggs being safer to eat.
Potatoes – the green tinge on the skin is poisonous and often it will be the chips that cause the problem rather than the fish which gets the blame.
Although I have never been sick from food poisoning we do adhere to maintaining the cold chain and our level of hygiene (although possibly not to the extreme lengths of some). I wonder if perhaps many people remove all germs from their lives and when confronted with them they have no resistance. Perhaps we have that resistance as a result of our time on the island and other travelling we have done. Perhaps that is why when at a friends place for dinner, Roger pulled from his mouth a chewed mess and whispered to me what did I think it was. It was immediately obvious to me that Roger had been munching on a big black cockroach. We both felt sick but even then he did not become ill.
Although it is necessary to be aware of food poisoning, by taking some sensible precautions – hand washing, wiping down benches and other basic hygiene principles and ensuring the proper refrigeration of food, the risks of food poisoning could almost be eradicated. Perhaps a little more difficult to eradicate are people’s need to take that sickie and blame it on the food they have eaten.