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Parents are sending their kids back to school with dangerous levels of contamination from food-borne bacteria, new research has warned. The cross-contamination study, conducted by the Global Hygiene Council, has found that up to 90% of surfaces touched during preparation of a simple meal, such as a child’s school lunch, can become infected with bacteria from food.
They discovered that contact from raw meat on objects such as knives, chopping boards and tea towels caused dangerous levels of contamination.
These surfaces then spread bacteria onto to ready-to-eat foods and into children’s lunchboxes – increasing the risk of illnesses such as e.coli.
Less than half of mums questioned in the study claimed to clean their child’s lunchbox daily.
Prof John Oxford, chairman of the Hygiene Council and professor of virology at Barts and The London School of Dentistry, said:
“Food poisoning can cause serious illnesses.
“Bacteria such as e.coli have been a major cause in recent food associated outbreaks, however simple hygiene measures can protect you and your family from infection.
“Washing your hands with soap after touching raw meat and vegetables is vital, as is disinfecting food and hand contact surfaces such as chopping boards and fridge door handles.
“The study shows that dish drying towels and cleaning cloths are also responsible for spreading contamination around the kitchen and these should be washed at high temperatures or disinfected regularly to break the chain of infection.”
The estimated number of child-related parental sick leave reached 190 million days-a-year last year – at a cost of £17 billion to the UK economy.
The cross-contamination study by the Global Hygiene Council found that up to 90% of surfaces touched during preparation of a simple meal can become contaminated.
Participating mums in the research were asked to prepare a range of meals – including a child’s lunch box – which showed the high levels of contamination.
Items affected included:
- Chopping boards and knives, which were found to be contaminated in 92% of cases;
- The dish drying towels, kitchen cleaning cloths and sponges, found too to be highly contaminated.
Volunteers used these to wipe their hands after touching raw chicken and vegetables and then again to wipe hands and surfaces – and even to dry grapes.
Through this they spread bacteria around the kitchen – onto to ready-to-eat foods and into the children’s lunchboxes.
The study found just 45% disinfected surfaces at home regularly – despite the practice being important in limiting the spread of infection.
The research, backed by cleaning firm Dettol, discovered none of the volunteers washed their hands after touching raw vegetables and salad or washed all of the salad items.
Results showed that only 26% of mums know that raw vegetables can also be a source of food poisoning bacteria, and as a result, 55% didn’t wash the fruit and veg before putting them into the lunchbox.
Almost three quarters (73%) also did not refrigerate it once prepared.
Less than half (44%) of mums said they cleaned and disinfected their child’s lunchbox daily – providing the opportunity for any bacteria to multiply.
However, 49% of mothers said their child was made to wash their hands before lunch.
Despite the potential for cross contamination of lunch boxes – just 2% of mums consider them to be a carrier of the most bacteria at school.
Prof Oxford continued:
“The kitchen is a hygiene hotspot and proper food storage, preparation and cooking are very important for preventing foodborne illness, especially as children head back to school.
“Using separate chopping boards and knives, or disinfecting these items between using them for different food types is essential to prevent contamination spreading to other surfaces and especially ready-to-eat foods.
“Whilst many people are aware that raw meat can be a source of contamination, there is lower awareness that raw vegetables and salad can be contaminated and should be treated in the same way.”
The Hygiene Council Cross-contamination Study also found that hand hygiene practices among the volunteers were lacking or inadequate.
None washed their hands with soap every time they touched raw chicken and none of them washed with soap for the recommended 20 seconds.
Bacteria were then transferred to commonly touched surfaces such as the taps and radio, which were contaminated in 86% and 67% of cases respectively.
These objects are unlikely to be cleaned regularly – therefore other family members are potentially at risk of picking up the bacteria.
The child’s beaker was also seen to be contaminated in two thirds of cases.
A second study, using deliberately contaminated chicken, vegetables and salad showed that where good hygiene practices were observed, the level of cross-contamination could be reduced from 90% to 16%.
The Hygiene Council’s top five tips for a hygienic packed lunch:
- Clean and disinfect the kitchen work surfaces with antibacterial sprays and wipes. Wipes can be disposed of immediately after use.
- Wash fruit, salad and vegetables thoroughly – especially if they will be eaten raw.
- Freshly prepare food each day where possible but if you have to store packed lunches overnight, check labels to ensure you store foods at the right temperature.
- Check that your child can store their food somewhere cool until lunchtime or consider using a freezer pack or cool bag to help keep your child’s lunch chilled.
- Try to get your child into the habit of washing their hands regularly with antibacterial soap, particularly after visiting the toilet and before eating, both at home and at school.