Food businesses have a responsibility to serve food that is safe to eat. However, there are some basic measures you can take that will minimise the risk of food poisoning when eating out.
The types of food that can make you sick
Many different types of food can make you sick. Food that contains dangerous bacteria or viruses may not look, smell or taste any different from food that is safe. Food-poisoning bacteria are either in the food to begin with or are transferred to the food during storage, preparation, cooking or serving.
Food-poisoning bacteria can grow and multiply on some types of food more easily than others. These high-risk foods include:
- raw and cooked meat, including poultry such as chicken and turkey, and foods containing these, such as casseroles, curries and lasagne
- dairy products, such as custard and dairy-based desserts like custard tarts and cheesecake
- eggs and egg products, such as mousse
- small goods such as hams and salamis
- seafood, such as seafood salad, patties, fish balls, stews containing seafood and fish stock
- cooked rice and pasta
- prepared salads like coleslaws, pasta salads and rice salads
- prepared fruit salads
- ready-to-eat foods, including sandwiches, rolls, and pizzas that contain any of the food above.
When eating out, pay special attention to how these high-risk foods are prepared, cooked, stored and served.
Choosing where to eat out
When you decide to eat in a restaurant or buy takeaway food, think about whether:
- staff members are using separate utensils and equipment for handling raw and cooked foods, for example, when preparing sandwiches
- staff members are using clean cloth to wipe surfaces
- raw and cooked foods are well separated
- the toilets are clean
- the shop or restaurant is generally clean.
Dirty conditions in the public areas of a shop or restaurant can be a clue that things may be worse in the kitchen or behind the scenes where customers don’t go.
Hints for buying food
When buying food, remember:
- Hot food should be served steaming hot (60 °C and above). Avoid eating lukewarm food.
- Cold food should be displayed on ice or in a refrigerated cabinet and should feel cold when you eat it (5 °C or less).
- Pre-made sandwiches and rolls that contain perishable ingredients, such as meat, fish, chicken, egg and cheese, should be stored in a refrigerated cabinet or kept at room temperature for less than four hours.
- Don’t buy ‘tired-looking’ food that looks like it has been sitting at room temperature for a long time.
- Minced meat, hamburgers, rolled or stuffed roasts and chicken must be cooked right through – there should be no pink meat. Do not eat undercooked meats. Return them for further cooking.
- Steak, chops and whole cuts of red meat can be cooked to your preference as contaminants are usually on the surface of the meat and killed during the cooking process.
- Takeaway food should be served in appropriate takeaway containers and at the appropriate temperature.
What to look for at buffets or self-service restaurants
- food to be eaten hot is stored in hot food display cabinets or over burners at 60 °C and above
- cold food is displayed on ice or in refrigerated cabinets at 5 °C or less
- each food dish has its own serving utensils
- fresh food is replenished regularly
- foods are covered by some type of guard or cover
- plates and cutlery are clean and dry.
Taking food home
When you have takeaway food, either eat it within a few hours or take it home and put it in the fridge immediately. Make sure that it is eaten within a couple of days. Throw out any high-risk food that has been left in the temperature danger zone of between 5 °C and 60 °C for more than four hours.
Doggy bags are not the same as normal takeaway foods. Takeaway food is intended to be eaten away from the premises, and is served by the food business at the appropriate temperature and in suitable takeaway containers.
The term ‘doggy bag’ developed when food left uneaten at a restaurant was taken home for the family pet. However, many customers take doggy bags home and consume that food themselves later.
There are no laws that prevent restaurants and cafes from giving customers doggy bags. However, uneaten food taken from a restaurant or cafe in a doggy bag may become unsafe for human consumption.
Foods taken home in doggy bags can be exposed to a number of hazards including:
- high-risk food left in the temperature danger zone (between 5 °C and 60 °C) can have increased levels of food-poisoning bacteria
- incorrect handling by the consumer can contaminate the food with food-poisoning bacteria
- not being reheated adequately.
Where to get help
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Department of Health and Human Services - RHP&R - Health Protection - Food Safety and Regulation
Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.