Food Handling Basics


Published: 19 July 2022

Safe food handling is always important, but particularly so in hospital and aged-care settings, where you are catering to vulnerable or sick patients who are highly susceptible to the consequences of foodborne illness or infection.

Each year, there are an estimated 4.1 million cases of food poisoning in Australia (Food Safety Information Council 2022).

These cases are largely preventable. It only takes a few simple steps to reduce the risk of food poisoning (AIFS 2018).

The preventative measures of food poisoning are: observing basic personal hygiene techniques, careful food preparation, storage and display.

Keep the following at the forefront of your mind when handling food:

  • Clean
  • Chill
  • Cook
  • Separate.
meal on tray


Always wash (vigorously and for at least 20 seconds) and dry your hands:

  • Before you begin preparing food
  • After handling raw meat, fish, eggs or vegetables with soil
  • After going to the bathroom
  • After blowing your nose
  • After touching an animal
  • After touching sores or cuts
  • After handling garbage.

For a comprehensive guide on how to properly perform hand hygiene, read Hand Hygiene 101.

If you’ve experienced infection, diarrhoea or vomiting, avoid handling food for at least 48 hours after your symptoms disappear.

Wipe down benches before and after use with a cloth and spray.

In order to avoid cross-contamination, keep utensils and cutting boards used for raw and ready-to-eat foods separate and wash them with warm, soapy water in between use.

(Healthdirect 2021; Sydney Children’s Hospital Network 2019)

cook with meal on tray


As a general guideline, food that has to be kept cold should be stored at or below 5°C to prevent the growth of bacteria that lead to food poisoning. Frozen food should be kept at -18°C or colder. Use a thermometer to check these temperatures.

  • Food should not be refrozen once thawed.
  • After shopping, store cold foods as quickly as possible in the fridge and keep them in the fridge until eaten. A cooler bag or ice-brick help keep products cool in the car.
  • Mark foods that are to be frozen with the date that you freeze them - while food can be kept in the freezer for long periods of time, its colour and texture will change.
  • Cool leftovers quickly.

(Healthdirect 2021; Sydney Children’s Hospital Network 2019)


Make sure meat is thoroughly cooked and that the centre of cooked food is at least 75°C. Avoid leaving cooked food out in the temperature danger zone (5-60°C) for longer than one hour - refrigerate after this amount of time has passed.

  • Serve hot food steaming at above 60ºC.
  • Do not reheat food more than once.
  • Cook meat all the way through until the juices run clear - ensure there is no pink left in mince or sausages and keep food steaming hot until you serve it.
  • Defrost frozen poultry and rolled and stuffed meats thoroughly before cooking.
  • Always follow cooking instructions on packaged foods.

(Healthdirect 2021; Sydney Children’s Hospital Network 2019; Food Safety Information Council 2018)


Bear in mind that raw meat, fish, poultry and raw vegetables can contain large numbers of bacteria. For this reason, protective measures need to be taken to prevent bacteria from spreading.

  • Keep raw food and ready-to-eat food separate to avoid cross-contamination.
  • In order to avoid cross-contamination, keep utensils and cutting boards used for raw and ready-to-eat foods separate and wash them with warm, soapy water in between use.
  • Wash your hands between handling raw food and ready-to-eat food.
  • Food should be stored in covered containers in the fridge. Put raw meats and poultry at the bottom of the fridge so the juices don’t contaminate food on lower shelves.
  • Don’t put cooked meat back on the same plate the raw meat was on.

(Sydney Children’s Hospital Network 2019; Food Safety Information Council 2018)

General Guidelines to Preventing the Spread of Bacteria

  • Keep an eye on use-by dates of food packages
  • Ensure food packages are in good condition
  • Clean the refrigerator and food cupboard regularly
  • Perishable food is to be kept at a temperature of 4 - 5°C and eaten when fresh
  • Leftovers should be eaten one to two days after being cooked
  • The freezer temperature is to be kept below -18°C
  • Leftover food should be steaming hot when served
  • Cool leftovers promptly
  • Mark frozen foods with the date they must be eaten
  • Do not refreeze food once it has been thawed.

(The Sydney Children’s Hospital Network 2019)

patient eating meal

Food Safety Facts

  • The temperature danger zone for food safety is between 5°C and 60°C. Outside of this zone, bacteria don’t grow easily.
  • The best way to defrost frozen food is in the fridge. Leaving food on the bench to defrost leaves it vulnerable to bacteria growth, as the outer part of the food will thaw faster than the middle.
  • Food doesn’t necessarily need to smell, look or taste bad to be contaminated. Bacteria are the catalyst of food poisoning and are not spotted easily.
  • Rice is home to a particularly tough type of bacteria (Bacillus cereus) that is difficult to eliminate when cooking.
  • Food poisoning can take one to three days to develop, so you shouldn’t assume your upset stomach is from the last thing you ate.
  • Food poisoning can be more severe than an upset stomach. It can be much more serious, and in some cases, deadly.

(Healthy WA 2018)

The Symptoms and Effects of Food Poisoning

Read: Food Poisoning (Foodborne Illness)


Test Your Knowledge

Question 1 of 3

Which one of the following is not listed as one of the four key steps in food handling?


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