Food safety is not only the responsibility of governments, farmers and food industries, but also of consumers.

What could we,consumers, do to avoid foodborne illnesses?

In SafeConsume*, researchers visited, video recorded and interviewed consumers in six European countries from purchasing food to consumption of a meal prepared by them. Surprisingly, although ingesting microbes or their toxins is the most common cause of illness, together with the fact that food is more likely to be contaminated when eaten raw, people, including young people, tended to be most concerned about pesticides, preservatives and processed food, rather than clean hands and utensils and appropriate storing and preparing of the food.

In the project context, the scientists linked common consumer practices to the top five risky microbes in Europe (Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, Campylobacter, Toxoplasma and norovirus). Based on this, here are five checkpoints for safe food handling:

Never prepare food when you are sick or within 48 hours after symptoms are over. WHY?

You are still shedding harmful microbes after symptoms are gone and can infect others around you. Infecting others is not only impolite, but riskytoo –microbes that make some people slightly sick may kill others.

Only eat foods such as chicken, burgers, eggs and egg dishes, mussels, clams, oysters and left-over food if thoroughly cooked. WHY?

Most microbes that make people sick are killed by cookingso cooking is your most effective weapon.

Thoroughly wash and disinfect cloths, shopping bags, utensils and surfaces after contact with raw meat, meat juices, raw eggs or soil, and wash your hands really well. WHY?

Some microbes make you sick even in very low numbers so you need to make sure that they are not going into your own mouth or infecting guests and family members.

Wash fruit and vegetables especially if eaten raw. WHY?

Harmful microbes can be present and thorough washing can reduce their numbers. For lettuce and other leaves, using a spinner helps remove water and microbes. If you are pregnant or immunocompromised consider the safer alternative:to cook vegetables and fruits.

Keep food in the fridge, check your fridge temperature (should be 4 ºC) and stick to due by dates. WHY?

Refrigeration and keeping to due by dates are often your only defence, if you are not going to cook food before eating it (the case of ready-to-eat foods). Whilst some microbes cannot grow below 4°C (e.g. Salmonella in eggs), others such as Listeria monocytogenes can grow in the fridge without any signs of the food being unsafe. So, you will be safe if you eat foods before the due by date as far as your refrigerator is not too warm, situation that speeds up bacterial growth, making food unsafe.

By putting SafeConsume advice into practice, let’s celebrate together the first World Food Safety Day, as “food safety is everyone’s business”.

* This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 727580.