Young children’s immune systems are not fully developed, and food safety guidelines should be followed whenever preparing food for them.

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
  • contamination from pests
  • bacteria.
Children are particularly vulnerable to illnesses caused by foodborne organisms because of their less mature immune systems. In early childhood settings the larger the number of children being fed the larger the risk, because it is more difficult to handle larger quantities of food safely.

Most states and territories have separate legal requirements, in addition to other regulations, that specifically relate to food safety. In some states and territories these may be handled by the local government authority, and some authorities will require staff and carers to undertake formal training. Check what is required in the local area.


Bacteria in foods

There are bacteria present in most foods. The only foods which have no bacteria are those produced synthetically in a sterile factory, or foods which have been heat-treated after preparation. Examples include canned foods and liquid baby formula. All other foods have some bacteria. Keeping food safe is about controlling the increase in the number of bacteria.

Food spoilage is often caused by bacteria, which can make food inedible and unpleasant but not necessarily harmful. Some bacteria however, called pathogens, are harmful. Pathogenic bacteria can be common. If this form of bacteria is present in a sufficiently large amount it can cause food poisoning or gastro-enteritis. These illnesses typically involve nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramps.
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For bacteria to grow to a number large enough to cause illness, food must have nutrients for growth, moisture and be at a temperature that allows bacteria to reproduce quickly.

The time interval between consuming harmful bacteria and showing symptoms of illness varies.

Different bacteria cause different illnesses. Some can cause very brief and mild illness, while others may lead to more serious illness and dehydration that can require 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 most common cause of gastro-enteritis is viral illness passed on through contact between people, rather than through food. These illnesses are very common, generally very acute and short term. Good hygiene, particularly hand-washing, is very important in limiting the spread of viral gastro-enteritis.


High-risk foods

Foods that allow the easy growth of bacteria are those that are moist and contain a lot of nutrients. These foods, called ‘high-risk’ foods, include milk, meat and fish, as well as any dishes containing them. 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, but will only cause illness if they contain harmful pathogenic bacteria. Keeping food safe for consumption relies on controlling all aspects of food handling and any food-related conditions, to ensure that bacteria cannot reproduce and grow to large numbers.


Low-risk foods

Foods unlikely to encourage bacterial growth, or ‘low-risk’ foods, include uncooked pasta and rice, breads and biscuits, packaged snack foods, lollies and chocolates. These foods can be kept safely 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. Lollies, chocolates and many packaged snack foods are ‘sometimes foods’, and should not be offered in the setting. Low-risk foods are useful for the store cupboard at early childhood settings, but need to be combined with high-risk foods in an adequate eating pattern to provide proper nutrition.