Contaminated food represents one of the greatest health risks to a population and is a leading cause of disease outbreaks and transmission. Food that is kept too long can go bad and often contains toxic chemicals or pathogens, and food-stuffs that are eaten raw, such as fruits or vegetables, can become contaminated by dirty hands, unclean water or flies and other such vectors. Improperly prepared food can also cause chemical poisoning. Half cooked or over cooked food for example hard boiled eggs and over cooked meat are bad for health.
To promote good health, therefore, food should be properly stored and prepared.
Ways in which communities can prevent health risks from food are discussed below:
Food preparation in the home:
As most families eat food that is prepared at home, it is important that families understand the principles of basic hygiene and know how to prepare food safely:
- Before preparing food hands should be washed with soap or ash.
- Raw fruit and vegetables should not be eaten unless they are first peeled or washed with clean water.
- It is also important to cook food properly, particularly meat. Both cattle and pigs host tapeworms that can be transferred to humans through improperly cooked meat; for this reason, raw meat should never be eaten.
- Eggs, too, must be cooked properly before eating, since they may contain salmonella, a virulent pathogen.
- The kitchen itself should be kept clean and waste food disposed off carefully to avoid attracting vermin, such as rats and mice that may transmit disease.
- Keeping food preparation surfaces clean is critical, because harmful organisms can grow on these surfaces and contaminate food.
- Fresh meat should be cooked and eaten on the same day, unless it can be stored in a refrigerator; if not, it should be thrown away immediately.
- Cooked food should be eaten while it is still hot and should not be left to stand at room temperature for long periods of time, since this provides a good environment for pathogens to grow.
- Food that is ready to eat should be covered to keep off flies and should be thrown away if not eaten within 12 – 16 hours.
- If food must be stored after cooking, it should be kept covered and in a cool place, such as a refrigerator and if a refrigerator is not available, food can be stored on ice blocks or in a preservative such as pickling vinegar or salt.
- Food that is already prepared, or food that is to be eaten raw, must not come into contact with raw meat as this may contain pathogens that can contaminate the other foods (particularly if slaughtering was not carried out hygienically).
Hotels and Restaurants:
In many urban centres food is bought and consumed at eating-houses (cafes, restaurants or canteens). If basic health and safety rules for storing, preparing and handling food are not followed in the eating-houses; these places will represent a health hazard for the customers and may cause serious disease outbreaks. The most important aspects of food hygiene in these establishments relate to sanitation, water supply and personal cleanliness:
- Eating-houses should have clean water for washing and drinking, and separate sanitation facilities, away from the kitchen area, for customers, cooks and food-handlers.
- The staff should have clean uniforms each day and have regular medical check-ups.
- The cooks, chefs and waiters should be the most particular in their own personal hygiene so as to prevent any contamination of food handled by them.
- Food to be served should be prepared fresh always and any that is spilled or not used should be disposed off.
- The kitchens and eating areas must be kept clean and free of vermin and insects.
- Eating-houses should also be well-ventilated, with adequate lighting.
Street food-vendors are common in urban and peri-urban areas, but they also operate in rural areas, particularly if there is a market or community fair. Although people enjoy food from these vendors, in many cases the food is of poor quality and it represents a serious health risk. In part, this is because the street vendors have little or no access to safe water supplies or sanitation facilities, and they commonly cook and handle food with dirty hands. Raw foodstuffs, too, cannot be kept in safe storage places and are easily contaminated by vermin and insects. Moreover, the street vendors often keep cooked food at ambient (environmental) temperatures for prolonged periods of time and may heat the food only slightly before serving. All these factors may make the food from street vendors dangerous.
A healthy and well-balanced diet is essential for good health. When there is not enough food, or if the diet does not contain the right balance of food-stuffs, people become more prone to illness and may become undernourished or malnourished. Children, in particular, are vulnerable to poor nutrition. Undernourishment and malnourishment can lower their resistance and make them more likely to suffer from infectious diseases. Often, children will eat only small amounts of food if it is spicy, even if it is nutritious, and it is important to make children's food less spicy than adult food. Also, because their stomachs are small, children can eat only small portions and need to be fed more frequently than healthy adults. It is also important that children are fed not just foods high in starch or carbohydrate (for instance rice). Although these foods can quickly make a child feel full, he or she may become malnourished if other key foodstuffs are not eaten.
- A well-balanced diet usually has a mixture of food:
- Proteins (for example beans, peas, meat, fish or eggs).
- Carbohydrates (such as maize, potatoes, cassava, rice and many other staple foods).
- Vitamins (such as vegetables, fish, fruits or milk).
- Fats or oils (such as cooking oil).
Sometimes not all these foods are available and it is important that community members ask health workers how to make best use of available foods for a balanced diet. In many situations, nutrition can be improved by changing agricultural or gardening practices. Often, even small plots of land can provide nutritious food provided that the right crops are grown. Health workers or agricultural extension workers can be asked for advice about which crops to grow to provide community members with well-balanced diets.