Published on 7 February 2024

    Observe proper food handling, preparation and storage to prevent a gastroenteritis outbreak at family gatherings.

    For many families, gathering around a simmering steamboat of soup containing meat, seafood and vegetables is a beloved tradition. 

    Steamboat is popular as a reunion meal for large groups because it is relatively convenient and versatile. However, the risk of gastroenteritis arises when there are multiple individuals handling raw food at the table.

    “Food hygiene mistakes can result in the cross-contamination of food. Consuming such contaminated food can then results in gastroenteritis,” said Dr Shirley Bong, Associate Consultant, Division of Gastroenterology, Department of Medicine, Ng Teng Fong General Hospital (NTFGH). Dr Bong is also a practising gastroenterologist at National University Hospital (NUH)

    Gastroenteritis, often referred to as stomach flu, presents symptoms like food poisoning but arises from distinct causes. It triggers inflammation in the stomach and intestines, typically stemming from viral or bacterial infections, leading to symptoms like diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and nausea.

    Unlike food poisoning, gastroenteritis is contagious. Sharing utensils or sauces increases the risk of contracting gastroenteritis, and transmission can also occur through touching contaminated surfaces or direct contact with an infected individual

    Infog r aphic produced on 30 January 2024 N g T en g F o n g Genera l H o s p ita l a n d a practicing ga s t r oente r ologist at N at io nal U n i versit y Ho sp i ta l . Meat juice should be clea r . Clear meat juices indicate that the meat has been coo k ed thoroughl y . It’s not just about cooking time. Hygiene and sto r age matte r . Gastro symptoms show up 6 hours to a week late r . A v oid putting in too ma n y ingredients into the hotpot at once. Whether r a w or not, fresh ingredients can h a v e “germs” too. Do n ’t place r a w and coo k ed ingredients on the same plate or beside each othe r . Do n ’t use the same cutlery and utensils to handle r a w , uncoo k ed and coo k ed food. Gastroenteritis is contagious. Sharing utensils or sauces increases the risk of cont r acting gastroenteritis, and t r ansmission can also occur through touching contaminated surfaces or direct contact with an infected individual. Add in ingredients that ta k e longer to cook first. Handle all ingredients with good h ygiene. W ash y our hands thoroughly with soap before starting food prepa r ation. Ensure broth has boiled before adding ingredients. Check that meat is n 't pink a n ymore. Th a w frozen food in the refrige r ator or microw a v e, and not at room tempe r ature. -- Dr Shirl e y Bong

    Reduce your risk of gastroenteritis

    Besides practising good hygiene, you’ll also want to ensure that food is thoroughly cooked and stored. There are different temperatures to cook different types of food safely. According to US health authorities, the recommended temperature for cooking chicken is 74°C, while for seafood, it’s 63°C. You may want to use a clean and sanitised food thermometer to check the internal temperature of large cuts of meat, poultry and other dishes when cooking and reheating.

    In the context of seafood, while cooking can effectively eliminate most pathogens such as Hepatitis, certain varieties like mussels and oysters may harbour toxins resistant to heat.

    It is advisable to always purchase shellfish from Singapore Food Agency-approved businesses, as well as food from licensed suppliers.

    After dining, store any leftovers in clean, food-grade packaging. Seal them tightly and place them in the refrigerator or chiller for storage. Avoid putting hot food directly into styrofoam or plastic containers, as they may melt. Also, refrain from overcrowding your refrigerator to ensure proper airflow. When reheating leftovers, remember not to refreeze food that has been thawed, as this can activate bacteria.

    The dangers of gastroenteritis

    Dr Bong cautioned that the elderly, children and people who are immunocompromised are more likely to experience severe impacts of gastroenteritis. These include dehydration, electrolyte imbalances and complications such as kidney problems.

    Pregnant women also need to be careful as some pathogens that cause gastroenteritis can have serious implications on the pregnancy. Listeria infection, for example, can cause miscarriage and preterm labour. “These groups of people should avoid consuming any raw or undercooked food and practise the various preventive measures,” advised Dr Bong.

    Gastroenteritis may also lead to death 

    In 2018, a 38-year-old Singaporean man died from gastroenteritis after eating bento-box meals which were found to contain strains of bacteria known as salmonella.

    Subsequent inspections conducted at the restaurant responsible for preparing the food revealed hygiene deficiencies, including instances of cross-contamination between food and raw meat containing salmonella.

    Typically, medications are given to relieve the symptoms of gastroenteritis to reduce vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhoea. “However, if symptoms persist or worsen despite medication, seek medical attention promptly. If gastroenteritis stems from bacterial infections, antibiotics will be required for treatment,” said Dr Bong.

    In consultation with Dr Shirley Bong, Associate Consultant, Division of Gastroenterology, Department of Medicine, NTFGH and Associate Consultant, Division of Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Department of Medicine, NUH.

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