Food saftey involves all aspects of providing food so that it is safe to eat - managing the risk of choking on food, avoiding allergic reactions,sensitivities and intolerances and ensuring that food is not contaminated in any way.
Allergies and intolerancesThere are many reasons why children may have an adverse reaction to a food. The cause of a reaction may be an allergy or intolerance to that food.
What are food allergies?Food allergies are caused by a reaction of the immune system to a protein in a food. The most common sources of food allergy in children under five years old are cow’s milk, soy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, sesame, fish and shellfish. Food allergies occur in around one in every 20 children, and some of these allergies are severe.
Symptoms of an allergic reaction are usually immediate and can include hives or a rash on the skin; swelling of the lips, tongue or mouth; vomiting; diarrhoea; or difficulty breathing. Severe allergies can lead to an anaphylactic reaction, where breathing becomes extremely difficult and can cause loss of consciousness and serious injury or death. If you suspect your child has a food allergy, talk to your doctor, who may recommend allergy testing.
What is food intolerance?In cases of food intolerance, reactions are usually less severe. Symptoms of food intolerance can include headaches, skin rashes and stomach upsets. If you notice that your child is experiencing these symptoms after eating, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor. Your doctor can help with diagnosing the symptoms, to find out whether they are related to dietary factors. They can then help you to identify particular foods that your child may need to avoid.
ChokingI have heard that children can choke on foods like raw apple or carrot - is this true?
Learning to eat foods of all textures is part of growing up. It is common for young children to ‘gag’, with coughing or spluttering, while they are learning to eat. This is different to choking and is not a cause for concern. However, choking that prevents breathing is a medical emergency.
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The most important way to protect your child from choking is to make sure that children sit down whenever they are eating, and ensure that you are always nearby to supervise. Always carefully consider the texture of the foods you provide your child. Young children are at risk of choking on food because of their small airways and their tendency to swallow pieces of food without chewing properly. Small pieces of hard food are the greatest choking risk for toddlers and babies, and should be avoided or prepared appropriately before being served to children.
Foods to be careful with include:
- hard fruit and vegetables such as raw carrots, celery sticks and pieces of raw apple (these should be grated, finely sliced or cooked and mashed to prevent choking)
- nuts, seeds and popcorn
- tough or chewy pieces of meat
- sausages or frankfurts with skin (remove the skin or buy already skinless, then cut into small semi-circular pieces to prevent choking)
- other foods that can break into hard lumps or pieces.
Food hygieneFood safety guidelines must always be followed carefully, especially when preparing food for children, whose immune systems are still developing.
Contamination in food can include:
- foreign bodies – hair, pieces of metal or other objects accidentally picked up during the preparation and cooking process
- chemicals from the food production process, or cleaning materials
- natural contaminants, such as toxins present in certain foods
- contamination from pests
What bacteria can be in foods?There are bacteria present in most foods. Food spoilage is often caused by bacteria, which usually makes food inedible and unpleasant but not necessarily harmful. Certain bacteria, called pathogens, are harmful and can cause food poisoning or gastro-enteritis. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramps.
Different bacteria cause different illnesses – some can be brief and mild, and others can be very serious, causing dehydration and requiring hospitalisation. Food poisoning is especially serious in children and elderly people because their immune systems are more vulnerable and they become dehydrated more easily.
The only foods which have no bacteria present are those produced synthetically in sterile factories, or foods which have been heat-treated after preparation – for example, canned food and liquid baby formula. All other foods contain some bacteria. Keeping food safe requires controlling the increase of bacteria.
jThe most common cause of gastro-enteritis is viral illnesses passed on by contact between people, rather than through food. These symptoms are very common, generally very acute and short-term. Hygiene and hand-washing are very important, to limit the spread of viral gastro-enteritis.
Bacteria grow easily in foods that are moist and have a lot of nutrients. These are called ‘high-risk’ foods. Milk, meat, fish and any dishes containing these foods are considered high-risk. Cooked rice also allows some bacteria to grow. If these foods are left out of the refrigerator for long periods of time, they will spoil and generally not be eaten. However, it is only if they contain harmful pathogenic bacteria that they will cause illness if eaten. Keeping food safe relies on controlling the conditions which allow bacteria to reproduce and grow to large numbers.
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Foods unlikely to encourage bacteria to grow are called ‘low-risk’, and include packaged snack foods, lollies, chocolates, uncooked pasta, rice and biscuits. Many lowrisk foods are sometimes foods, such as lollies, chocolate and some packaged snacks, and are not recommended for every day. These foods can be kept for long periods of time without refrigeration. Canned food is safe while the can is still sealed, but once opened the food may become high-risk.
What can I do to ensure that food is prepared safely?
- Always wash your hands before handling food – and wash them again if you touch your hair, need to use a tissue to wipe your nose, after sneezing or going to the toilet, or if you touch other items that may carry bacteria.
- Buy food from suppliers you can trust. Buy foods that look fresh, and from places where turnover is high. Make sure that packages are unbroken and products are within their use-by date.
- Transport high-risk foods quickly or in cool containers.
- Keep all kitchen areas clean.
- Protect low-risk foods by placing them in sealed containers, once packages are open.
- Use separate cutting boards for raw meat and fish, cooked items (such as meat and vegetables) and fruit. Colour code boards to help you remember to use the right ones.
- Wash knives after use with uncooked meat and fish, and before use with any foods that are ready to be eaten.
- Keep high-risk foods refrigerated before cooking or until they are to be eaten. Place any cooked high-risk foods back in the refrigerator, if not eating them straight away.
- ‘Do not reheat cooked foods more than once. Discard any food that was served and not eaten. Discard any food that was not served, but which has been out of the refrigerator for more than two hours.
- Reheat food until it is steaming hot. Allow it to cool down to serving temperature, then serve immediately.
- Check daily that your refrigerator is working, and that food is cold.
- Wash dishes between use in hot soapy water and leave them to dry, rather than using a tea towel. Alternatively, use a dishwasher.
What about food preparation with children?
- Ensure that children always wash hands before handling any food.
- Supervise children at all times while in teh kitchen.
- Take care to avoid any injuries from sharp knives and hot surfaces.
What can I do to ensure that food is served safely?
- Wash hands before eating.
- Use tongs and spoons to serve food.
- Cover and refrigerate any food not served straight away, and serve again later.
- Never allow a child to eat food that has been dropped on the floor.