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How to Keep Food Safe in School Lunchboxes

What is Food-Borne Illness?

The recent food-borne illness outbreak in Germany is a reminder to minimise the risk of our children getting sick from the food in their school lunchboxes. Food-borne illness is any illness that results from eating food that is contaminated. Contamination can come from physical objects, chemicals, and biological substances such as bacteria and viruses. Food contaminated with bacteria is the leading cause of food-borne illness.

Symptoms of food-borne illness can include: nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhoea, and fever. It is important to practice precautionary measures to prevent food-borne illness because food that is contaminated will not always look, smell, or taste any differently than food that is safe.

What are the High Risk Foods?

Potentially hazardous foods include but are not limited to:
•    meat,
•    poultry,
•    dairy,
•    eggs,
•    soy protein,
•    cooked rice,
•    cooked or open canned beans,
•    cooked pasta and even
•    some non-acidic fruit such as melons.

The school lunchbox can become a breeding ground for bacteria in the heat of the Australian day especially if it is left to sit out in the sun. If there is a long period of time between when the lunch leaves the refrigerator at home and when it is eaten at school, bacteria can multiply in your child’s food.

How Do I Prevent Food-Borne Illness?

Bacteria require time and the right temperature to grow. If a high-risk food stays in the temperature danger zone (5 degrees Celsius to 60 degrees Celsius), bacteria will multiply. The longer that food is kept in this danger zone, the more bacteria will multiply.

Include an ice pack and/or a frozen drink in your child’s school lunchbox to keep the temperature of food below 5 degrees Celsius. This is particularly important if you are packing items such as sandwiches, dairy products, meat, and leftovers. Try using a lunchbox that is specially made to keep food below 5 degrees such as the Fridge to Go lunchbox. Fridge to Go uses a 'freezer pack' to keep food cool for up to 8 hours in the lunchbox. Wash the lunchbox every day.

Wash hands thoroughly with warm water and soap before and after preparing food for home and the lunchbox. Wash fruits and vegetables well and cut them using a different cutting board from the one you use for meat and poultry. Always cook food to the proper temperature at home (Check the NSW Food Authority website for cooking temperatures) and ensure that it has cooled to below 5 degrees before packing it in your child’s lunchbox.

Being aware of high-risk foods and following precautions can help to minimise the risk of food-borne illness in your home and in your child’s lunchbox making for a happy and healthy mealtime.  

This article was contributed by the Healthy Kids Association.