Cool school lunches and befriending the ownerless workplace fridge – back to school and work food safety tips

Media release: 21 January 2013

A concerted effort to make sure school lunches are kept out of the temperature danger zone and that the workplace fridge is food-ready make excellent starts to a hopefully food poisoning free year suggests the Australian Food Safety Information Council.

Council Chairman, Dr Michael Eyles, says although some results from the latest Council commissioned Newspoll Food Safety Attitude and Behaviour Survey show minor improvement, almost a tenth of the more than three quarters (78%) of adult Australian workers who take a packed lunch admit, even on warm days, they make no attempt to cool it through the use of office refrigerators or cooler boxes.

The results covering school lunches are “even more concerning” according to Dr Eyles.

“Perishable food becomes unsafe to eat if in the temperature danger zone (5°-60°) for 4 hours − about the time between leaving home and lunchtime!

“Despite clear scientific evidence that lowering the temperature decreases bacteria growth, the survey found more than a quarter (28%) of the 94% of households with children which pack school lunches don’t include a frozen drink or ice brick to help keep the packed lunch cool. Alarmingly this figure is significantly higher (+8%) than found in the previous 2011 survey.

“Those living in the major capital cities appear to be the worst offenders when it comes to keeping children’s lunches cool, with 29% in these areas saying they don’t include a frozen drink or ice brick compared with 25% in the regional and rural areas.

“Those packing lunches for children need to understand how vulnerable young ones can be, and that food poisoning can have horrific long-term consequences including reactive arthritis.

“Other key lunchbox tips are to ensure you prepare food with well washed hands and utensils and always wash your hands before eating lunch. Lunchboxes and reusable drink bottles must be thoroughly washed and dried daily. If cracked, split or crazed, replace as bugs will grow in any cracks. Avoid risky foods such as soft cheeses, sprouts, pate, etc.

“Children’s lunchboxes kept inside the school bag will keep cooler longer especially if the bag is kept away from heat sources such as direct sunlight.”

As for the workplace, Dr Eyles congratulates the vast majority (93%) of workers who cool their lunches in the workplace fridge or an esky-style cooler box.

As for the others he suggests a detour to the office fridge on the way to your desk could be the smartest work move you’ll make all year, as it will ensure your lunch is fit to eat so you’re at the top of your game not on sick leave for who knows how long.

“Packing a lunch to take to work is a healthy and cost effective option, but leaving that lunch out of the workplace fridge or not in a cooler if you work outside, can lead to food poisoning bacteria growing quickly during hot weather. Bacteria especially like to grow in the healthier foods, such as salads and cold meats,’ Dr Eyles says.

“The Council’s advice line indicates that at least a few who don’t use the workplace fridge have their reasons, feeling it is more of an incubator of food disasters rather than the clean, well packed, below 5°environment it should be.

“So step up and rather than avoid it, make friends with that fridge at work that no one seems to own. Make sure it is clean and not packed with ageing food. Put in a fridge thermometer and check it is running at 5°C or below.

“Begin the working year by everyone getting together to clean out the fridge and giving it at least one owner – a person responsible for setting up a workplace roster for keeping fridges and kitchens clean. Pens and labels should be available for people to label containers with name and date.

“Employers can assist by making refrigerators and coolers are available and in good order. Handwashing soap and drying facilities should be made available in kitchens and handwashing posters put up. This could lead to a reduction in sick leave, not just from food poisoning but also viruses such as norovirus and influenza which are currently taking a toll in the Northern Hemisphere.

“If you or your child has food poisoning don’t go to work or school, and avoid handling food for others until 48 hours after symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea stop. If food poisoning symptoms persist, visit a doctor,” Dr Eyles concludes.

Food poisoning results, on average, in 120 deaths, 1.2 million visits to doctors, 300,000 prescriptions for antibiotics, and 2.1 million days of lost work each year. The estimated annual cost of food poisoning in Australia is $1.25 billion.

The Food Safety Information Council is Australia’s leading disseminator of consumer- targeted food safety information. It is a non-profit entity supported by the Australian Department of Health and Ageing, state and territory health and food safety agencies, local government, and leading professional, industry and community organisations.

CONTACT: Juliana Madden, Executive Officer:, 0407 626 688