Introduction

Food safety
Food safety

The UK has more than 500,000 reported cases of people experiencing food poisoning a year, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

If you've ever had food poisoning, you'll know how unpleasant it can be, even for a fit and healthy person. Sometimes food poisoning can cause serious illness and even death.

Most people assume that food poisoning comes from restaurants, cafes and fast food outlets, but according to the FSA you're just as likely to get ill from food prepared at home.

Follow these tips to reduce the risk of food poisoning at home.

Wash your hands

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water and dry them before handling food, after handling raw foods including meat, fish, eggs and vegetables, as well as after touching the bin, going to the toilet, blowing your nose, or touching animals, including pets.

Wash worktops

Wash worktops before and after preparing food, particularly after they've been touched by raw meat, including poultry, raw eggs, fish and vegetables. You don't need to use antibacterial sprays: hot soapy water is fine.

Wash dishcloths

Wash dishcloths and tea towels regularly and let them dry before you use them again. Dirty, damp cloths are the perfect place for bacteria to breed.

Use separate chopping boards

Use separate chopping boards for raw food and ready-to-eat food. Raw foods can contain harmful bacteria that spreads very easily to anything they touch, including other foods, worktops, chopping boards and knives.

Keep raw meat separate

It's especially important to keep raw meat away from ready-to-eat foods such as salad, fruit and bread. This is because these foods won't be cooked before you eat them, so any bacteria that gets on to the foods won't be killed.

Store meat on the bottom shelf

Always cover raw meat and store it on the bottom shelf of the fridge, where it can't touch other foods or drip onto them.

Cook food thoroughly

Cook food thoroughly and check that it's piping hot all the way through. Make sure poultry, pork, burgers, sausages and kebabs are cooked until steaming hot, with no pink meat inside.

Keep your fridge below 5°C

Keep your fridge temperature below 5°C. By keeping food cold, you stop food poisoning bugs growing.

Cool leftovers quickly

If you have cooked food that you're not going to eat straight away, cool it as quickly as possible (within 90 minutes) and store it in the fridge or freezer. Use any leftovers from the fridge within two days.

Respect 'use-by' dates

Don't eat food that's past its "use-by" date label. These are based on scientific tests that show how quickly harmful bugs can develop in the packaged food.

Read more about food poisoning in our online Encyclopaedia.

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Food Storage

Proper storage of food reduces the risk of food poisoning. Follow these tips to ensure your food is always safe to eat.

Fridge storage

Some foods need to be kept in the fridge to help stop bacteria growing. These include foods with a "use by" date, cooked foods and ready-to-eat foods such as desserts and cooked meats.

Here's how to prevent bacteria from growing:

  • Keep your fridge temperature at 5C or below. Most fridges are warmer than you think. .
  • When preparing food, keep it out of the fridge for the shortest time possible.
  • If you’re having a buffet, keep the food refrigerated until you’re ready to serve it.
  • Cool leftovers as quickly as possible (ideally within 90 minutes) and store them in the fridge. Eat them within two days.
  • Store eggs in their box in the fridge.
  • Never put open cans in the fridge as the metal of the can may transfer to the can's contents. Transfer the contents into a storage container or covered bowl.

“Make sure food has cooled down before you put it in the fridge,” says Philippa Hudson, senior lecturer in food safety at Bournemouth University.

“If the food is still hot it will raise the temperature in the fridge, which isn’t safe as it can promote bacterial growth.”

It is safe to let food cool completely before storing it in the fridge, so long as basic food hygiene is applied to avoid cross-contamination. When re-heating food, make sure to cook until steaming hot.

To ensure your fridge remains hygienic and in good working condition, clean it regularly.

“Food debris accumulates over time and can increase the risk of cross-contamination,” says Hudson.

'Best before' and 'use by'

  • Food with a 'use by' date goes off quite quickly. It can be dangerous to eat after this date.
  • Food with a 'best before' date is longer-lasting. It should be safe to eat but may not be at its best quality after this date.

'Use by' dates

No food lasts forever, however well it is stored. Most pre-packed foods carry either a 'use by' or 'best before' date.

  • 'Use by' dates appear on foods that go off quite quickly. It can be dangerous to eat foods past this date.
  • 'Best before' dates are for foods with a longer life. They show how long the food will be at its best quality.

“Food can look and smell fine even after its use-by date,” says Hudson. “But that doesn’t mean that it's safe to eat. It could still be contaminated.”

Storing meat

It's especially important to store meat safely in the fridge to stop bacteria from spreading and avoid food poisoning.

  • Store raw meat and poultry in clean, sealed containers on the bottom shelf of the fridge, so they can't touch or drip onto other food.
  • Follow any storage instructions on the label and don't eat meat after its use-by date.
  • Keep cooked meat separate from raw meat.

Freezing and defrosting

It’s safe to freeze meat and fish as long as you:

  • Freeze it before the use-by date.
  • Defrost meat and fish thoroughly before cooking. Lots of liquid will come out as meat thaws, so stand it in a bowl to stop bacteria in the juice spreading to other things.
  • Defrost in a microwave if you intend to cook straightaway. Otherwise, put it in the fridge to thaw so that it doesn't get too warm.
  • Cook food until it's piping hot all the way through.

“Make sure the meat is properly wrapped in the freezer or it might get freezer burn, which will make it tough and inedible,” says Hudson.

“Date and label meat in the freezer and eat it within 24 hours of defrosting. Don't keep food in a freezer indefinitely. Always have a good idea of what’s in your fridge and freezer.”

Re-freezing

Never re-freeze raw meat (including poultry) or fish that has been defrosted. It is possible to re-freeze cooked meat once, as long as it has been cooled before going into the freezer. But if in doubt, don't re-freeze.

Frozen raw foods can be defrosted once and stored in the fridge for up to two days before they need to be cooked or thrown away. To reduce wastage, divide the meal into portions before freezing and then just defrost what you need.

Cooked food that has been frozen and removed from the freezer must be reheated and eaten immediately once fully defrosted. When defrosted, food should be reheated only once, because the more times you cool and reheat food, the higher the risk of food poisoning. Bacteria can grow and multiply when food is cooled too slowly, and might survive if food isn't reheated properly.

When reheating food, make sure it is heated until it reaches a temperature of 70°C for two minutes, so that it is steaming hot throughout.

Foods stored in the freezer, such as ice cream and frozen desserts, should not be returned to the freezer once they have started to thaw. Only take out of the freezer what you intend to use for that meal.

Re-using bags

With more and more people re-using carrier bags, whether for environmental reasons or to avoid paying for new ones, the following tips will help prevent bacteria spreading to ready-to-eat food:

  • keep raw meat and fish separate from ready-to-eat foods in separate bags
  • if you use re-useable bags, keep one or two just for use with raw meat and fish and don't use the same bags for ready-to-eat foods
  • re-useable bags (and single-use carrier bags) should be disposed of if there are spillages of raw meat juices
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Kitchen hygiene

Common kitchen clangers are being blamed for some of the million cases of food poisoning in the UK each year.

Practices such as washing raw chicken and ignoring ‘use by’ dates are putting people’s health at risk, warns the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

A survey for the FSA found that many people are putting their health at risk when cooking at home.

More than 36% of people questioned for the survey admitted to washing raw chicken before cooking it. Washing raw meat, such as chicken, can spread harmful bacteria.

Moreover, 85% of those who did not check ‘use by’ dates, said they relied on sniffing food to determine if it was still safe to eat.

Kitchen clangers

Other common kitchen clangers revealed in the survey of 2,199 people,  include:

  • 43% of respondents said they would eat food after a ‘use by date’
  • 35% said they do not check ‘use by’ dates
  • 29% would eat food after it has been dropped on the floor
  • 21% do not wash hands properly before preparing food

The FSA warns the meals you prepare for yourself, your family and friends can be a source of food poisoning.

Every year, there are more than a million cases of food poisoning in the UK, including 20,000 hospitalisations and 500 deaths.

However, most respondents in the survey (93%) believe they have never given family or friends food poisoning.

If they do fall ill themselves, only 5% of those quizzed consider whether the cleanliness of their own kitchen is the cause.

Bob Martin, food safety expert at the FSA, said: “By not washing their hands before preparing food at home, or ignoring ‘use by’ dates, people could be setting themselves and their friends or family up for a bout of really unpleasant illness.”

Encouragingly, 95% of those surveyed said they washed chopping boards in between preparing raw and ready-to-eat food.

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Food preparation

Studies show that the kitchen contains the most germs in the home.

One found that the kitchen sink contains 100,000 times more germs than the bathroom.

Germs such as E. coli, campylobacter and salmonella enter the kitchen on our hands, raw food and through our pets. They can rapidly spread if we're not careful.

If food isn't cooked, stored and handled correctly, people can become ill with food poisoning, colds, flu and other conditions.

Washing hands

Our hands are one of the main ways germs are spread, so it's important to wash them thoroughly with soap and warm water before cooking, after touching the bin, going to the toilet, and after touching raw food.

Raw meat, including poultry, can contain harmful bacteria that can spread easily to anything it touches. This includes other food, worktops, tables, chopping boards and knives.

"Lots of people think they should wash raw chicken, but there's no need," says food hygiene expert Adam Hardgrave. "Any germs on it will be killed if you cook it thoroughly. In fact, if you do wash chicken you could splash germs on to the sink, worktop, dishes or anything else nearby."

Take particular care to keep raw food away from ready-to-eat foods such as bread, salad and fruit. These foods won't be cooked before you eat them so any germs that get on to them won't be killed.

"Use different chopping boards for raw and ready-to-eat foods," says Hardgrave.

When storing raw meat, always keep it in a clean, sealed container and place it on the bottom shelf of the fridge, where it can't touch or drip on to other foods.

Cooking

Cooking food at the right temperature will ensure that any harmful bacteria are killed. Check that food is piping hot throughout before you eat it.

The foods below need to be cooked thoroughly before eating:

  • poultry
  • pork
  • offal, including liver
  • burgers
  • sausages
  • rolled joints of meat
  • kebabs

When cooking burgers, sausages, chicken and pork, cut into the middle to check that the meat is no longer pink, the juices run clear and it's piping hot (steam is coming out).

When cooking a whole chicken or other bird, pierce the thickest part of the leg (between the drumstick and the thigh) to check that there is no pink meat and that the juices are no longer pink or red.

Pork joints and rolled joints shouldn't be eaten pink or rare. To check when these types of joint are ready to eat, put a skewer into the centre of the meat and check that there is no pink meat and the juices run clear.

It's safe to serve steak and other whole cuts of beef and lamb rare (not cooked in the middle) or blue (seared on the outside) as long as they have been properly sealed (cooked quickly at a high temperature on the outside only) to kill any bacteria on the meat's surface.

If you've cooked food that you're not going to eat immediately, cool it at room temperature (ideally within 90 minutes) and store it in the fridge. Putting hot food in the fridge means it doesn't cool evenly, which can cause food poisoning.

Hardgrave's advice is to store food in the fridge below 5°C (41°F). "If your fridge has an internal freezer compartment that is iced up, the fridge could struggle to maintain its temperature," he says.

Washing fruit and vegetables

It's advisable to wash fruit and vegetables under cold running water before you eat them. This helps to remove visible dirt and germs that may be on the surface.

Peeling or cooking fruit and vegetables can also remove these germs.

Never use washing-up liquid or other household cleaning products, as they might not be safe for human consumption and you may accidentally leave some of the product on the food.

Cleaning up

Wash all worktops and chopping boards before and after cooking, as they can be a source of cross-contamination.

The average kitchen chopping board has around 200% more faecal bacteria on it than the average toilet seat.

Damp sponges and cloths are the perfect place for bacteria to breed. Studies have shown the kitchen sponge to have the highest number of germs in the home. Wash and replace kitchen cloths, sponges and tea towels frequently.

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Risks

Food and hygiene facts

People, pets and food are the main carriers of germs into the home. Once in, germs can get everywhere.

Here's the truth about germs in your home, including some facts you didn't know but will be glad you read.

Kitchen sink squalor

Although the kitchen sink contains 100,000 times more germs than a bathroom or lavatory, most people think of the toilet as the most contaminated part of the house.

Don’t forget your toothbrush

When you flush, germs from the toilet bowl can travel as far as six feet, landing on the floor, the sink and your toothbrush. A study showed that significant quantities of microbes float around the bathroom for at least two hours after each flush. Always put the toilet lid down before flushing.

Sponge hotbed

A used kitchen sponge can contain thousands of bacteria per square inch, including E. coli and salmonella. The sponge’s moist micro-crevices are a trap for germs and are difficult to disinfect. Replace sponges regularly.

Cutting board

The average kitchen chopping board has around 200% more faecal bacteria on it than the average toilet seat. Hygiene experts advise you to use separate chopping boards for red meat, poultry, fish and vegetables.

Hand washing

Hands are the biggest spreaders of germs in the home. Studies show that hand washing lowers the transmission of diarrhoea and colds, and targeted disinfection at critical sites reduces the spread of infection in the home. Wash your hands frequently during the day, using hot water and soap, to prevent spreading germs. Wash them every time you've been to the toilet, and before and after preparing food.

Good germs

While some germs cause disease, not all microbes are harmful. They are the foundation of the food chain that feeds all life on earth and we would not survive without them.

Bacteria colony

Bacteria can grow and divide every 20 minutes. One single bacterium can multiply into more than eight million cells in less than 24 hours.

Carpet world

Carpets are the largest reservoir of dust in the home. They contain hair and skin cells, food debris, dirt and insects. A home with floorboards is believed to have a tenth of the dust of one with wall-to-wall fitted carpets.

Handle with care

The greatest risk of infection in the bathroom comes from surfaces that are frequently touched by the hands, including the toilet flush handle and seat, taps and door handles.

Dirty laundry

Clothes, towels and linen can carry germs. Washing very soiled items at a high temperature reduces the risk of infection. Wash your hands after handling dirty laundry.

Contaminated birds

More than 50% of raw chicken contains the campylobacter bacteria, which causes more illness than salmonella in Britain. Cooking chicken until it reaches a temperature of 70C (158F) can help to ensure that it's safe to eat. You can test the temperature of food with a food thermometer.

Pet pestilence

Campylobacter is carried by about half of all dogs and cats and it can cause food poisoning in people. The bacteria are passed on when you stroke your pets. Always wash your hands after coming into contact with pets.

Bedroom feast

The bedroom is the perfect breeding ground for dust mites, which feed on dead skin. The average person sheds up to 10g (0.35oz) of dead skin a week and up to 18kg (40lb) in their life.

Food poisoning

About 40% of cases of food poisoning occur in the home, according to a European-wide study by the World Health Organization in 2003.

Smelly handbag

A swab of a handbag showed up to 10,000 bacteria per square inch. A third of bags tested positive for faecal bacteria. Bags come into contact with some very dirty places including public transport, public toilets and restaurant and bar floors.

Soiled soles

Our shoes pick up all kinds of dirt when we're outdoors, including animal faeces. When we walk around in them at home, these germs get liberally spread around, settling into carpets and increasing the risk of infection. Hygiene experts advise taking your shoes off before you walk around the house.

Cooling-off period

Placing hot food in the fridge can lead to uneven cooling, which can cause food poisoning. It can take a long time for the temperature in the middle of the food to drop and that creates the perfect environment for bacteria to multiply.

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Barbecue food safety

Food poisoning cases double over the summer, so remember these simple steps to help keep food safe.

Food poisoning is usually mild, and most people get better within a week. But sometimes it can be more severe, even deadly, so it's important to take the risks seriously. Children, older people and those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning.

 "The safest option is to cook food indoors using your oven," says a spokesperson from the Food Standards Agency (FSA). "You can then put the cooked food outside on the barbecue for flavour." This can be an easier option if you're cooking for a lot of people at the same time.

If you are only cooking on the barbecue, the two main risk factors are:

  • undercooked meat
  • spreading germs from raw meat onto food that's ready to eat

This is because raw or undercooked meat can contain germs that cause food poisoning, such as salmonella, E.coli and campylobacter. However, these germs can be killed by cooking meat until it is piping hot throughout.

 Germs from raw meat can move easily onto your hands and then onto anything else you touch, such as food that is cooked and ready to eat

Cooking meat on a barbecue

When you're cooking any kind of meat on a barbecue, such as poultry (chicken or turkey), pork, steak, burgers or sausages, make sure:

  • the coals are glowing red with a powdery grey surface before you start cooking, as this means that they're hot enough
  • frozen meat is properly thawed before you cook it
  • you turn the meat regularly and move it around the barbecue to cook it evenly

Remember that meat is safe to eat only when:

  • it is piping hot in the centre
  • there is no pink meat visible
  • any juices are clear

"Don't assume that because meat is charred on the outside it will be cooked properly on the inside," says the FSA spokesperson. "Cut the meat at the thickest part and ensure none of it is pink on the inside."

Some meat, such as steaks and joints of beef or lamb, can be served rare (not cooked in the middle) as long as the outside has been properly cooked. This will kill any bacteria that might be on the outside of the meat. However, food made from minced meat, such as sausages and burgers, must be cooked thoroughly all the way through.

Raw meat

Germs from raw meat can move easily onto your hands and then onto anything else you touch, including food that is cooked and ready to eat. This is called cross-contamination.

Cross-contamination can happen if raw meat touches anything (including plates, cutlery, tongs and chopping boards) that then comes into contact with other food.

Some easy steps to help prevent cross-contamination are:

  • always wash your hands after touching raw meat
  • use separate utensils (plates, tongs, containers) for cooked and raw meat
  • never put cooked food on a plate or surface that has had raw meat on it
  • keep raw meat in a sealed container away from foods that are ready to eat, such as salads and buns
  • don't put raw meat next to cooked or partly cooked meat on the barbecue
  • don't put sauce or marinade on cooked food if it has already been used with raw meat

Keeping food cool

It's also important to keep some foods cool to prevent food poisoning germs multiplying.

Make sure you keep the following foods cool:

  • salads
  • dips
  • milk, cream, yoghurt
  • desserts and cream cakes
  • sandwiches
  • ham and other cooked meats
  • cooked rice, including rice salads

Don't leave food out of the fridge for more than a couple of hours, and don't leave food in the sun.

See the Food Standard Agency's GermWatch campaign.

Fire safety

Make sure your barbecue is steady on a level surface, away from plants and trees.

The Fire Service advises covering the bottom of your barbecue with coal to a depth of no more than 5cm (2in). Use only recognised firelighters or starter fuel, and then only on cold coals.

Never use petrol on a barbecue.

See more on the Fire Service's barbecue safety tips.

Carbon monoxide risk

If you're camping, you are advised never to light, use or leave smouldering barbecues inside tents, awnings or other enclosed spaces because of the risks of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning.

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Cooking turkey

Defrosting your turkey

If you buy a frozen turkey, make sure that the turkey is properly defrosted before cooking it. If it's still partially frozen, it may not cook evenly, which means that harmful bacteria could survive the cooking process.

Defrosting should be done in the fridge if possible (or somewhere cool) and separated from touching other foods, with a container large enough to catch the defrosted juices. This is important to stop cross-contamination.

Defrosting checklist

  • Work out defrosting time in advance, so you know how much time to allow – it can take at least a couple of days for a large turkey to thaw.
  • When you start defrosting, take the turkey out of its packaging, put it on a large dish and cover. The dish will hold the liquid that comes out of the thawing turkey.
  • Remove the giblets and the neck as soon as possible to speed up the thawing process. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw turkey, giblets or any other raw meat.
  • Before cooking, make sure there aren't any ice crystals in the cavity. Test the thicker parts of the turkey with a fork to tell whether the meat feels frozen.
  • Turkey (and any other poultry) is best defrosted in a covered dish at the bottom of the fridge so that it can't drip onto other foods.
  • Pour away the liquid that comes out of the defrosting turkey regularly to stop it overflowing and spreading bacteria. Be careful not to splash the liquid onto worktops, dishes, cloths or other food.
  • Bear in mind what else is you have stored in the fridge. Cooked meats need to be covered and stored higher up.
  • If the bird is too big for the fridge, put it somewhere out of reach from animals and children where it won't touch other foods. A cool room, shed or garage are all good places.
  • If you're not using the fridge, watch out for sudden changes in room temperature, as they could prevent the turkey from thawing evenly.

Defrosting times

To work out the defrosting time for your turkey, check the packaging for any guidance first. If there aren't any defrosting instructions, use the following times to work out roughly how long it will take to thaw your turkey.

  • in a fridge at 4ºC (39ºF), allow about 10 to 12 hours per kg, but remember that not all fridges will be this temperature
  • in a cool room (below 17.5ºC, 64ºF), allow approximately three to four hours per kg, or longer if the room is particularly cold
  • at room temperature (about 20ºC, 68ºF) allow approximately two hours per kg

When your turkey is fully defrosted, put it in the fridge until you're ready to cook it. If this isn't possible, make sure you cook it immediately.

Preparing the turkey

Keep the uncooked turkey away from food that's ready to eat. If raw poultry, or other raw meat, touches or drips onto these foods, bacteria will spread and may cause food poisoning.

Bacteria can spread from raw meat and poultry to worktops, chopping boards, dishes and utensils. To keep your Christmas food safe, remember the following things:

  • After touching raw poultry or other raw meat, always wash your hands with warm water and soap, and dry them thoroughly.
  • There's no need to wash your turkey before your cook it. If you do, bacteria from raw poultry can splash onto worktops, dishes and other foods. Proper cooking will kill any bacteria.
  • Always clean worktops, chopping boards, dishes and utensils thoroughly after they have touched raw poultry or meat.
  • Never use the same chopping board for raw poultry or meat and ready-to-eat food without washing it thoroughly in warm soapy water first. If possible, use a separate chopping board just for raw meat and poultry.
Cooking your tukey

Plan your cooking time in advance to make sure you get the bird in the oven early enough to cook it thoroughly. A large turkey can take several hours to cook properly. Eating undercooked turkey (or other poultry) could cause food poisoning.

Three ways you can tell a turkey is cooked:

  • the meat should be steaming hot all the way through
  • none of the meat should be pink when you cut into the thickest part of the bird
  • the juices should run clear when you pierce the turkey or press the thigh

If you're using a temperature probe or food thermometer, ensure that the thickest part of the bird (between the breast and the thigh) reaches at least 70°C for two minutes.

Turkey cooking times

The cooking times below are based on an unstuffed bird. It's better to cook your stuffing in a separate roasting tin, rather than inside the bird, so that it will cook more easily and the cooking guidelines will be more accurate.

If you cook your bird with the stuffing inside, you need to allow extra time for the stuffing and for the fact that it cooks more slowly.

Some ovens, such as fan-assisted ovens, might cook the bird more quickly – check the guidance on the packaging and the manufacturer's handbook for your oven if you can.

As a general guide, in an oven preheated to 180ºC (350ºF, Gas Mark 4):

  • allow 45 minutes per kg plus 20 minutes for a turkey under 4.5kg
  • allow 40 minutes per kg for a turkey that's between 4.5kg and 6.5kg
  • allow 35 minutes per kg for a turkey of more than 6.5kg

Cover your turkey with foil during cooking and uncover for the last 30 minutes to brown the skin. To stop the meat drying out, baste it every hour during cooking.

Cooking times for other birds

Other birds, such as goose and duck, need different cooking times and temperatures. The oven should always be hotter for duck and goose in order to melt the fat under the skin.

  • goose should be cooked in a preheated oven at 200ºC/425ºF/gas mark 7 for 35 minutes per kg
  • duck should be cooked in a preheated oven for 45 minutes per kg at 200ºC/400ºF/gas mark 6
  • chicken should be cooked in a preheated oven at 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4 for 45 minutes per kg plus 20 minutes
Storing leftovers

Keep cooked meat and poultry in the fridge. If they are left out at room temperature, bacteria that causes food poisoning can grow and multiply.

After you've feasted on the turkey, cool any leftovers as quickly as possible (within one or two hours), cover them and put them in the fridge. Ideally, try to use up leftovers within 48 hours.

When you're serving cold turkey, take out only as much as you're going to use and put the rest back in the fridge. Don't leave a plate of turkey or cold meats out all day, for example, on a buffet.

If you're reheating leftover turkey or other food, always make sure it's steaming hot all the way through before you eat it. Don't reheat more than once. Ideally, use leftovers within 48 hours.

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Selected links

NHS Direct Wales link

Food poisoning

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The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS Choices.
Last Updated: 13/06/2016 09:09:23