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How to avoid frozen food poisoning

Date

Sarah Berry

What to freeze? ... preventing frozen foods from turning funky.

What to freeze? ... preventing frozen foods from turning funky. Photo: Tony Cenicola

As much as Juliana Madden, executive officer at Food Safety Information Council loves a sausage sizzle, she says they can be breeding grounds for bacteria. "Often the sausages will come frozen in a great big slab, so defrosting and cooking right through is almost impossible."

If the meat is not completely defrosted it's hard to get the temperature high enough on the inside to kill bacteria without burning the outside, she says.

While she is used to hearing people say they were fine after eating something that might have been bad, the risk of food poisoning is high. Each year an estimated 5.4 million Australians suffer from foodborne illness. 

Whether or not we get sick from funky food can depend on the handling of food as well as the health of our immune system. Those with vulnerable health are particularly at risk, she says. "You have to be careful with ... anyone over 60 or under 5 or 6. At the beginning of life the immune system is still developing and at the end of life [it is] degenerating.

"Also, you need to be careful with women who are pregnant. While they might be very healthy, [spoiled food] can affect the foetus."

But, of course perfectly healthy people can also get profoundly ill. In fact, just last week a young Sydney girl received an eight million dollar payout. It was not an outcome to celebrate: she was left severely brain damaged from salmonella poisoning after eating a chicken wrap.

This was a highly unusual and tragic occurrence.

And while more common cases of food poisoning are not always avoidable, there are some simple strategies minimise the risks.

Meat

Whether it's been in the freezer or not, any meat that's been outside or exposed to air needs to be cooked, Madden says. "Heat is the leveller of bacteria."

Chicken, offal, deboned or mixed meats (e.g. sausages or hamburger mince) are particularly prone to bacteria, so should be cooked right through in case pathogens have made their way to the inside.

Madden also suggests cutting meat into portion sizes before freezing so it's easier to thaw. "Defrost in the fridge," she advises.

It will take longer, but defrosting on the bench means the outside of the food will warm up, so the pathogens will get to work. "It's a perfect environment," she explains. "It's warm in the kitchen and there's moisture ... [Also] if a food is defrosted in the fridge, it's probably ok after a day or so to re-freeze."

You can theoretically freeze food for an infinite amount of time (as long as the freezer is working properly), she says, but for food quality she suggests that fish should be frozen no longer than a month, chicken for three to four months while more robust meats can be frozen for up to a year.

 Dairy and eggs

"A lot of people won't freeze milk or cream, but that's more to do with reduced quality than safety," Madden says. "Freezing can affect the nutrients and texture." For instance, dairy (including butter and yoghurt) can separate and lose their smoothness and flavour.

Dairy Australia does not recommend freezing soft or fresh cheese. As far as hard cheese goes, they say: "freezing causes cheese to become dry and crumbly and is not recommended unless grated for cooking."

With icecream and other dairy, the general rule is to throw it out and not re-freeze it once it's partially thawed.

Eggs are fine to freeze, but not in the shell as it will break, Madden says. "If an egg has any bits of broken shell [which can have remnants of chicken poo] you should throw it away immediately. There's been a growth in salmonella cases [which is caused by meat, poultry, eggs, and their by-products] - there were 12,800 last year."

A tip to prevent graininess is to add 1 tablespoon sugar or ½ teaspoon salt per cup of whole eggs, depending on intended use. Strain through a sieve or colander to improve uniformity. Package, allowing ½ inch of head space. Seal and freeze.


Vegetables and fruit

Fruits have the least amount of quality damage during thawing, however the texture will change after re-freezing.

Vegies can generally be cooked straight from the freezer, but when frozen need to be kept at -18 degrees Celsius and for no more than six months.

As with any food, if you notice any spoilage, it's safe to say it's unsafe to eat.


19 comments

  • As a parent of a soccer family we attend many different clubs. The standards of hygiene vary enormously. I cannot understand how so many idiot parents can be allowed to use a BBQ when they dont understand or appreciate food hygiene. I'm astounded how few people actually know how to "cook" and serve a correctly heated fresh item. They seem to regard a club canteen as exempt from all rules of hygience and safety. If they cooked that way at home their kids would be ill weekly.
    - Meat left unrefrigerated
    - Insufficiently cooked meat - Especially sausages / mince burgers.
    - Meat (sausage, bacon, steak) pre-cooked and stored together without being kept truly warm in a bain-maree. "The "I just cooked it" excuse can last an hour.
    - Precooked eggs (A definate NO NO). Often stored with meat a certain NO NO.
    - Precooked eggs which are runny
    - Using an implement to crack eggs. Cross contamination is guaranteed from chook pooon shell, raw meat and egg white.
    - Chopping boards which are plastic or unwashed. Usually outside near BBQ nowhere near sink.
    - No handwashing facility immediate to BBQ
    - Parents eating while cooking & serving + no handwashing
    - Meat poorly stored ie - Transferred from container to container or allowed to thaw exposed
    - Meat Pies etc sold with insufficient heating
    - Tools shared - Eggs, meat, raw, cooked etc.

    Councils - Why dont you inspect club canteens from time to time?? Most parent volunteers have NO idea about food hygiene and clubs should be accountable in a similar way to any other food establishment.

    Commenter
    Paul
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    May 02, 2012, 10:47AM
    • Whilst I don't for a minute doubt your comments, my suggestion would be first to contact the club and ensure they are aware of any problems or short comings. Once it has been identified they do have an obligation to correct it.

      Perhaps the sports and volunteer associations negotiate and offer a discounted food safety courses for their volunteers to ensure they know the guidelines.

      Perhaps signage could be sent to all clubs and assocation via the council perhaps to assist newcomers understand what they should and shouldn't be doing.

      In this case it is perhaps better to suggest all volunteers have no knowledge and education is the key!

      Similair to first aid a refresher course each season would be a huge benefit.

      Commenter
      Rugby Mum
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 02, 2012, 11:17AM
    • Paul, you are so right. I often see these fund raising sausage sizzles etc run by parents with all sorts of dodgy practices. I acknowledge that their hearts in the right place, they want to help the school/team etc but serving food poisioning on a bun is not a good way to help.

      Maybe these fund raisers could have a least one person do a food hygene course and teach the rest how to behave. Honestly, I am amazed more people don't get sick.

      I have had food poisoning and it is just awful. Days of being sick at both ends, worn out and exhausted. And it takes weeks to recover properly.

      I don't eat anything from any food vendors unless I am fairly certain it's safe.

      Commenter
      emily
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      May 02, 2012, 11:31AM
    • You are so right Paul. I am a soccer mum and will pretty much refuse to eat at games due to the poor quality control regarding food and hygine at many game dyas.

      There was this one time i volunteered in the canteen and one of the dads was manning the sausage sizzle.

      He cut his finger on the knife used to slice the bread rolls open and then proceeded to continue serving customers, with blood running down his hand. He wasn't even using gloves.
      The customer he was serving refused the sausage sandwich as it had his blood on it and the guy didn't even think that anything was wrong with it.

      Commenter
      Big Mama
      Location
      Fantasy Land
      Date and time
      May 03, 2012, 10:59AM
  • Part of the problem is the "she'll be right", "we've never had a problem before" and "would you like a spoonful of concrete to harden up a little?" attitudes when unsafe food practices are pointed out. I've seen people freeze sausages just before their use by date (that's fine), but then defrost them, store them for a few days before refreezing. The original day or two of 'use by' date is forgotten and the thinking is that freezing somehow magically resets the clock. Anyone who has suffered serious food poisoning will attest to the fact that it's not just a little upset stomach. It's a miserable, dehydrating feeling for a week or more. A serious medical condition.

    Commenter
    Unsafe food
    Location
    Adelaide
    Date and time
    May 02, 2012, 11:12AM
    • A meat thermometer is a great asset to any cook, professional or amateur. That way I know the meat is cooked if the internal temperature is 70 degrees Celsius or above. Snags, rissoles, chicken, beef or pork - the thermometer is used.

      As winnesr of many meat tray raffles, we freeze the meat immediately we get home and eat over the ensuing 6 months. Any pack beyond that is disposed of as pet food or rubbish.

      We love rare roast beef, but only use butcher bought beef for that as our local butcher has very good, fresh beef.

      Commenter
      Rob Emanuel
      Location
      Blackheath
      Date and time
      May 02, 2012, 12:17PM
      • And don't tell me that 'use by' is different from 'best before' If it's past the date, it's out.

        Commenter
        Ben
        Location
        Canberra
        Date and time
        May 02, 2012, 12:51PM
        • Ben, whilst I do understand where you are coming from... some products are still ok after their 'best before date.' Sometimes those dates are there only for precautionary measures or just to warn consumers that some products might not be as awesome as when they were intially purchased.

          Commenter
          D
          Location
          Gold Coast
          Date and time
          May 02, 2012, 2:13PM
        • Ben - use by and best before are very different. 'Best Before' means best eaten before this date as quality will degrade. 'Use By' means consume until the day before the written date and is far more rigid so is used for foods which degrade/become unsafe quickly. 'Use Through' is similar though the product can be used/served on the date written.

          Commenter
          dude
          Location
          maccas
          Date and time
          May 02, 2012, 2:16PM
      • And this attitude is why we are breeding children who have increased allergies and are getting sicker and sicker.

        Commenter
        Itsame
        Location
        Newy
        Date and time
        May 02, 2012, 2:32PM

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