Old-style cooking habits could put you at risk this Christmas
Don't fall foul of food hygiene errors during the festive season, writes Eilish O'Regan
Preparing a festive feast or Sunday roast harbours hidden dangers for amateur cooks who don't know how to handle poultry.
We all fear food poisoning after hearing horror stories of grubby takeaway restaurants or rat-infested pub cellars.
But often it's our own inability to prepare food properly that puts us most at risk.
Washing a bird before cooking is still ingrained in many Irish households, even though it risks bacteria being splashed onto work surfaces, clothing or other food.
A recent study found more than half Irish-produced whole chickens were contaminated with the bug campylobacter, warned Dr Pamela Byrne, chief executive of the Food Safety Authority.
And while turkey meat generally has less of the dangerous bacteria, it is still a risk if it is not handled properly. Ignoring basic food safety rules could ruin many a festive family feast this Christmas, as kitchens become busy and cramped places.
In an era when people are more reliant on convenience, the Food Safety Authority faces fresh challenges in minimising harm from what we eat.
But sometimes it is the old die-hard traditions and habits that are difficult to change.
"Campylobacter is the biggest cause of foodborne illness in Ireland and 2,452 cases were reported last year with poultry as the main food source," Dr Byrne pointed out.
Thorough cooking will kill any bacteria making the chicken safe to eat - but too many people are still not convinced and are sticking with their traditional method of preparation, she added.
Dr Byrne took over the State watchdog, which polices and inspects food premises to protect the public, last year.
A typical day for inspectors can involve serving an enforcement order on a restaurant for posing a grave risk to customers - or clamping down on counterfeit vodka.
One of its priorities is to reduce the level of campylobacter contamination in chickens - one of Ireland's many dinner staples.
"We are trying to find out more about how it moves through the food supply chain, and this involves research," Dr Byrne told the Irish Independent.
"Last year the former Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney and myself met with the poultry processing chain and we are working on an action plan to see what can be done to reduce contamination.
"The evidence is that it starts back in the poultry houses but we are also working with retailers around packaging."
The agency is best known for dishing the dirt on restaurants, cafés, takeaways and other food outlets which are found to be in breach of hygiene standards during unannounced inspections.
Last year it issued 371 enforcement orders, mostly involving instructions to improve standards. But 90 of those were closure orders.
"They are served on food businesses only when a serious risk to consumer health has been identified or where there are a number of ongoing breaches of food legislation - and that largely tends to relate to a grave hygiene or operational issue."
But the emergence of pop-up restaurants, ethnic dining evenings in people's homes and food ordering through apps now presents a new frontier to be tackled by inspectors.
Once there is a commercial transaction they are subject to the rules of the watchdog.
"There can be no excuse for putting consumers' health at risk through negligent practices."
Hygiene failures in dirty premises can include staff handling food and money without washing their hands or changing gloves.
In some cases rats are -found. Members of the public are also encouraged to ring up if they suspect their food poisoning was due to a meal in a restaurant or food bought in a shop. Dr Byrne said a key role of the Authority is to educate and support food businesses, working in partnership.
This is being made easier by developing more online learning tools.
"We have a food service forum and the Chinese Restaurant Association has just joined. We send clear messages about what we are seeing in various sectors."
Meanwhile, the risk of allergens in food, which can leave sufferers facing life-threatening reactions, is set to get more focus and surveillance.
Businesses are now required by law to declare any of the 14 potential allergens in food served or sold to the public including gluten, peanuts, eggs and milk. "Some 42 complaints last year from the public related to allergens. Around 3pc of adults have food allergies and 5pc of children."
She added:"We are helping businesses through technology and our MenuCal tool to comply with the legislation.
"Last year we issued a number of 36 alerts about allergens due to undeclared ingredients and inconsistent or incorrect labelling.
"We know there are issues around labelling. We are now looking at compliance.
"But at least these are known dangers.
"If you ask me what keeps me awake at night it is the prospect of a massive outbreak of foodborne illness based on something we don't know about."
It means working closely with European Food Safety authorities and scanning for those emerging food threats.