Food Hygiene

Making weaning safer: food hygiene

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Dialogue on Diarrhoea Online Issue 56 – March-May 1994

Making weaning safer: food hygiene

Good food hygiene is very important during weaning.

Weaning – the gradual introduction of foods other than breastmilk – can be a risky time for infants. They are losing the benefits of breastmilk and are exposed to food-borne germs for the first time. This means that safe preparation and storage of food should be a priority during weaning.

After 6 months of age, infants need more food and nutrients in order to grow well. Because of their small stomachs they need to have as many as 5-6 small meals a day.

Ideally, infants should be given freshly prepared food at every meal. This is because storing food at room temperature causes bacteria in the food to multiply rapidly.

However, we should recognise that many families do not have the resources to cook fresh food five or six times a day. Many women are already overworked, and advice which adds to their workload is not likely to be welcomed. Lack of time and scarce or expensive fuel means that often families cook in bulk and store food for later meals.

If food is stored between meals it is important that storage methods are safe. Food should be covered so it will not be contaminated by flies or dust. It should be kept cool to prevent germs breeding. Most families do not have a refrigerator, but many do have traditional ways of preserving and protecting food. In some societies food is stored in containers in running water or in porous pots standing in water to keep the food cool. Sometimes food is kept in baskets and hung from the ceiling out of reach of insects and rodents, and where wind will keep it cool.

Some traditional preparation methods, such as fermentation or the production of curd from milk. protect food from germs and delay spoilage.

One key action – heating food thoroughly – can destroy most germs in food that cause diarrhoea. It is particularly important to reheat food that has been stored from an earlier meal before re-serving it.

This issue of DD looks at what can be done to improve food hygiene taking account of the constraints faced by families. It also describes improved cookstoves that allow families to practise good hygiene – thorough heating before serving food – on limited budgets.

It is important that health workers and educators find out about local food practices, especially traditional practices that improve food hygiene, and work with communities to identify, ways of reducing the risk of diarrhoea from contaminated food.

Facts about food hygiene

Safe preparation and storage of food is crucial to good health. Up to 70 per cent of all diarrhoea episodes are caused by germs that can be carried in food and swallowed. It is estimated that improvements in food hygiene could decrease the incidence of diarrhoea between 15 and 70 per cent.

Food can be contaminated in many different ways, including through contact with the following: human faeces used as fertiliser; unclean water; dirty hands of food handlers; dirty utensils or containers; and animals and insects.

It is likely that fewer germs are required to cause illness when swallowed in food, rather than in water, because food may protect the germs from acid in the stomach.

In addition, when food is stored at warm temperatures, small harmless numbers of bacteria can multiply to dangerous levels. In most countries more episodes of bacterial diarrhoea occur during the warmer months when bacteria multiply rapidly in stored food.

Two common mistakes significantly increase the risk of food contamination:

  • preparation of food several hours before eating, then storing it at warm temperatures, which encourages growth of bacteria
  • insufficient cooking or reheating of food.

If food is cooked thoroughly and eaten as soon as it is cool enough to eat. then most food-borne diarrhoea can be prevented. It is particularly important to avoid storing and re-serving food to infants who are most vulnerable to infection.

However, if food needs to be stored it should be kept as cold as possible, preferably in a refrigerator. All stored food should be reheated until it is thoroughly hot before serving.

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Written by WASHplus

July 21, 2010 at 4:30 pm

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