Food safety tips

While snake bites, crocodile attacks, bushfires, flash floods, road trains, and wandering camels may all present headline-worthy threats to our health and wellbeing, a far less spectacular peril is laying many more grey nomads low.

While it may sound preferable to a high-speed collision with a camel, food poisoning is certainly no laughing matter and it has the potential to turn the adventure of a lifetime into nightmare. Obviously life on the open road presents its own unique food preparation challenges whatever sort of rig you are travelling in. In general, cooking is done outdoors or in relatively cramped kitchenettes; fridges are smaller and may be shut down when travelling, and clean running water may not be available.

It all adds up to a giant warning signal. And it’s not just a case of a day or two of feeling a little bit sick either. Every year about 5.4 million Australians get food poisoning, and a staggering 120 people die as a result. Of course, not all of these are grey nomads but I bet a fair share of them are grey.

Luckily the Food Safety Information Council has released a fact sheet On the Road, aimed at older travellers. And here’s what it tells us to do:

  • COOK food to steaming hot – above 65°C
  • COOK food properly – juices should run clear
  • CHILL food – at or below 5°C
  • SEPARATE raw and ready to eat foods
  • CLEAN benchtops, utensils and hands with soap in warm running water and dry thoroughly

Cooking in caravans, motor-homes, or campervans is not always easy. The bench space is usually limited, there is probably less equipment, fridge space is small and a good supply of fresh running water is not always available. To cope with all of this:

  • If water is going to be in short supply buy extra chopping boards, knives and other food preparation equipment.
  • Take extra care to clean benchtops and utensils before, during and after food preparation.
  • Carry lots of leak-proof containers with you and use them for any raw food to prevent leaks onto other foods. Zip lock plastic bags can also do the job, provided they are properly sealed and have no holes.
  • Buy Fresh: shopping from the local markets is a great way to get to know the small towns. You might be pleasantly surprised to find beautiful fresh local produce.
  • Keeping food out of the temperature danger zone ( between 5°C and 65°C).
  • Keep a thermometer in the fridge to allow you to monitor and adjust the temperature when needed. If the temperature inside the fridge rises above 5°C, bacteria in the food can multiply and make the food unsafe to eat.
  • Don’t overload the fridge and block air circulation which is needed to maintain the correct temperature.
  • Take the beer, jam and pickles out of the fridge if you’re short of space. They are unlikely to cause food poisoning if they stay outside the fridge.
  • Take special care when preparing cooked food for eating later (eg after chilling or freezing). Make sure that all work surfaces and utensils used are clean. Refrigerate the food as soon as it stops steaming.
  • Freeze food in small containers or sealed bags containing only enough for one meal to reduce left-overs. Remember to label and date the packages.
  • Thaw food in a microwave or in the fridge – never on the benchtop. Soups and stews can be heated from frozen in a saucepan. Whatever way you thaw the food, make sure that it is heated to steaming hot before it is eaten.
  • Minimise contamination by always storing raw meats and poultry on the lowest shelf of the fridge, below ready to eat fresh food.
  • Canned and Dry Foods – If you’re travelling far from towns and supermarkets, you can supplement your fresh foods with canned and dried products which can be safely stored outside the fridge.

Make sure that you have access to enough safe water to rehydrate any dried food e.g. powdered milk, which will not be thoroughly cooked before you eat it (see tips on safe water below). Once opened, dried foods should be kept in airtight containers.

Cook poultry, minced meats, sausages and boned roasts right through. No pink should be left visible and the juices should run clear. Steaks and other solid pieces of meat can be cooked to taste. Have a clean plate and clean utensils ready to receive the cooked meat – don’t use the same ones that were used for the raw meat as the uncooked juices will contaminate the cooked food. Cooking only enough meat for one meal is the safest option. Food left out of the fridge for two hours or longer could be unsafe and should be thrown out.

If you are using an unserviced site, remember, water, even in remote and pristine wilderness is not necessarily safe. If the water tank in your caravan or motor-home is unsealed or if the water has not been regularly changed, it may have picked up contaminants and should be treated if used for drinking or washing ready to eat food. A couple of things you can do to make sure your water is safe:

  • Use bottled water.
  • Boil water for at least one minute. Boiling water is the most efficient method of disinfection.
  • Use a portable water filter. Follow manufacturer’s instructions on appropriate use.

These are simple precautions that we should all follow. Food poisoning is a genuine danger and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Let’s do the right thing and enjoy our time on the road.

Bon appetit.



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