Watch what you eat at Christmas

Christmas is an event that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ.

Several religious and secular activities take place before and after the Christmas holiday, which is celebrated in Ghana on December 25, every year.

During the Christmas season people tend to buy larger amounts of food than normal and store it over longer periods. Many people also cook Christmas meals for larger number of people and this can be a challenge. Some people tend to cook outdoor for parties and picnics while others tend to store leftover foods.

The festive season is a special period for most families and friends and they are delighted to enjoy buffet in restaurants and other places.

Restaurants in a bid to serve all their customers may tend not to clean utensils and cook food thoroughly, besides, certain basic hygienic practices may be overlooked.

These coupled with the hot weather during Christmas increases the risk of food-borne illnesses as germs which cause these illnesses multiply faster.

Some food-borne illnesses are cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery, and other diarrhoeal diseases. Symptoms of food-borne illnesses include nausea, vomiting, stomach pains, fever, headache and diarrhoea.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that in developing countries, contaminated food contributes to 1.5 billion annual cases of diarrhoea and at least 1.8 million deaths in children below five years.

A study conducted in Ghana revealed that about 2.3 million cases of food-borne illnesses were recorded in 2002 in the country’s health institutions made up of public and private health facilities, pharmacies among others.

Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and sick people especially those with weaker immunity such as those with HIV/AIDS are particularly vulnerable to food-borne illnesses.

Can you imagine how Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day will be for you if you have to attend the call of nature uncontrollably for more than three times a day? I guess that will be the least thing you want to experience during this season. The good news is that we can prevent this from happening to us by just following certain simple guidelines.

Before you start shopping for Christmas clean your fridge thoroughly with hot soapy water and create more space by throwing out any expired perishables. It is important to buy foods from reputable sources, and when buying can foods look out for dents, cracks or bulging lids as these and opened, torn or damaged food packages tend to allow germs to get into the food. It is possible that some shops will sell expired and damaged products at a discount so check expiry dates on food paying particular attention to perishable food and if it is expired do not buy it.

While shopping, buy refrigerated and frozen foods last to prevent the food from warming to unsafe temperature that allows germs to grow. It is also advisable to wrap chicken, meat and fish in separate plastic bags so that their juices, which usually contain germs, do not drip on the other foods.

Refrigeration is one way of halting the growth of germs in foods so put all your perishable foods in the fridge or freezer within two hours after shopping.

“It is quite common to find some fridges working at higher temperatures than the normal refrigeration temperature of between O°C and 5°C so check to make sure that your fridge is working properly. Make sure you do not overload your fridge as this prevents the cold air from circulating properly and can stop the fridge from working properly.

One of the most effective means of spreading germs is through our hands therefore before you start preparing your food wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water, rinse and then dry with a clean napkin or towel.

Napkins and towels need to be kept clean because they can contain germs. It is advisable that people who have diarrhoea do not handle or cook food for other people because they can easily transfer germs into the food. It is also important to wash your hands in between handling raw and cooked foods. Do not forget to wash and dry chopping boards, utensils and all working surfaces.

During the Christmas season, meat and poultry are abundant in most homes, but remember they are the best medium for germs to grow so be careful the way you handle them.

Never thaw your poultry, meats and other foods on the kitchen bench rather thaw in the fridge or microwave, and thaw thoroughly before cooking else the chicken or meat may not cook well through to the centre.

Usually for a 2-2.5kg chicken, allow at least 24 hours for thorough thawing. Your chicken, meat and all meat products such as sausages, chopped and minced meats, kebabs and barbecues need to be cooked thoroughly until there are no pink bits in the centre and the meat juices clear and not pink. By this you can be sure that all the germs are killed.

Fruits and vegetables can be a good source of germs because of the mode of cultivation and handling during transportation and at the markets therefore wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly preferably under tap. When washing in standing water in a basin change the water at least three times to remove dirt and germs.

For fruits and vegetables with firm surfaces such as oranges, carrots and potatoes a clean brush or sponge can be used to scrub the surface. Peeling fruits such as oranges also reduces the risk of germs and residues.

Thorough cooking usually destroys most of the germs, but if food is not handled properly, germs can be re-introduced into it before eating. It is also important to note that while some of the germs grow on the food, they produce certain toxins which unfortunately cannot be destroyed during cooking so the food is eaten with the toxins and this can be very dangerous.

You must, as much as possible, eat hot food immediately they are cooked, or put in the fridge within 90 minutes. If you want to keep the food steaming hot, then wrap the hot food with aluminium foil and a clean heavy towel and place in an insulated container or an ice chest. It is a dangerous practice to keep cooked food on the kitchen bench for more than two hours because germs double in number every 20 minutes at room temperature. It is very important that all cooked and prepared vegetables, salads, coleslaw, dairy and similar foods are refrigerated promptly because these foods can harbour lots of germs.

During the Christmas season, leftovers are very important; on the Boxing Day especially, some people may feel tired and lazy to cook due to the previous day’s activities so they rely on the leftovers. To ensure the safety of leftovers (which would have been refrigerated the previous day) reheat all leftover foods until they are steaming hot all through to the centre so that all germs are killed and for soups, gravies, sauces and stews reheat until they boil.

Christmas season is characterised by parties, picnics and buffets and from my own experience eating some of the foods served during these times can bring very devastating feelings. Sometimes we tend to attribute the cause of our diarrhoea or stomach pains to the hot pepper sauce that might have been served. Perhaps observing the following guidelines may prevent any discomfort this time:

Before choosing a particular restaurant, check whether the staff observes good personal hygiene and have proper food handling practices.

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water before eating your food. However, if soap and clean water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser to clean your hands.

Do not consume food that tastes abnormal.

Ensure that hot dishes are steaming hot and cold dishes very cold, if not send it back for reheating or rerefrigeration.

Always check to ensure that there is no pink bit in the middle of your chicken (especially the grilled ones) and meat and meat products. If there is, send it back to have it re-cooked.

Use separate utensils such as spoons, tongs and plates provided by the restaurant to handle raw and cooked food to avoid cross-contamination.

Use a clean plate to take food each time; do not use the same plate repeatedly.

Do not take too much food at a time to avoid prolonged exposure of food at room temperature where germs multiply faster.
Do not leave your food on your table for more than two hours while you engage in conversation.

The elderly, children, pregnant women, lactating mothers and sick people should avoid eating raw foods or cold dishes because they are more prone to food-borne illnesses.

Avoid raw or under cooked eggs or any food that contains under cooked eggs as they can contain germs.

If you have to take away any left-over ensure it is well packaged and take it home promptly and refrigerate.

Source: Rose Omari/Daily Graphic