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Handwashing: Why It’s Important for Adults to Model to Kids

Access to safe and nutritious food is an important part of childhood development but it can often be taken for granted here is Australia. While we are blessed with fertile lands, clean water, and a well-regulated food production system, food can still make people sick if basic hygiene practices aren’t followed.

Food poisoning symptoms can range in severity, but vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, and immunocompromised individuals (e.g., pregnant women) are often the hardest hit.

There are an estimated 4.67 million cases of food poisoning in Australia each year, 47,900 hospitalisations, and 38 deaths, according to a 2022 report on the Annual Cost of Foodborne Disease in Australia by the Australian National University. Foodborne illness has a financial impact too, estimated to cost $2.1 billion annually to the Australian economy.

Follow the basics to reduce the risk of illness

Washing your hands before eating or handling food is one of the most basic food safety practices that can be followed to reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

However, according to new research from the Food Safety Information Council, 34% of Australians admit that they don’t always wash their hands before touching food, and 17% don’t always wash their hands after going to the toilet.

In particular, one-third of young people (under 34 years) admit to not always washing their hands before touching food, which is concerning given the likelihood of this age group in caring for young children or elderly relatives.

Who is responsible for food safety?

Government, food producers, food retailers, educators, families, and the wider community must all work together to ensure children have access to nutritious food and a clean environment.

In Queensland, food safety is regulated by three government agencies: Queensland Health, Safe Food Production Queensland, and local government/councils. Each oversees different aspects of the food production system and supply chain.

On a day-to-day basis, food producers are ultimately responsible for ensuring the food they produce and release into the supply chain is safe and suitable to eat. But of course, it doesn’t end there.

Safe food handling practicesYoung girl blowing her nose with a tissue (especially for raw food) must also be followed at home or in school to prevent illness. This includes washing hands thoroughly:

  • Before handling, preparing and eating food
  • After touching raw meat, seafood, and eggs
  • After using the toilet or changing nappies
  • After blowing your nose
  • After touching an animal or cat litter tray
  • After handling garbage, and
  • After gardening.

How to wash your hands properly

  1. Wet your hands, add soap, and rub them together well to build up a good lather for at least 20 seconds. Don’t forget to wash between your fingers and under your nails.
  2. Rinse well under running water to remove the bugs from your hands.
  3. Dry your hands thoroughly on a clean towel for at least 20 seconds. Touching surfaces with moist hands encourages bugs to spread from the surface to your hands.
  4. If no running water is available use an alcohol gel hand rub.

Help children develop handwashing skills

Mother washing hands with daughterParents and caregivers can instil good hand hygiene practices in children by modelling this behaviour themselves and making handwashing part of everyone’s daily routine. For example:

  • Make handwashing the first task children complete when they arrive home.
  • Wash your hands together before mealtimes.
  • Have soap and a clean towel/paper towel available at each sink.
  • Set up a stool to make it easier for smaller children to reach the sink by themselves.
  • Carry antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer with you when you’re out in public places.

Children will wash their hands if dirt is obvious but may need reminding to wash germs away that can’t be seen. Be consistent and patient – it takes time for children to develop the habit of handwashing. But once it becomes a regular part of their day, they will practice it throughout their lives.

Other food safety tips for children

Given Queensland’s hot climate it’s important that, in addition to handwashing, food is stored at an appropriate temperature and certain foods avoided with young children if a fridge it not available (i.e., at school).

Opt for lower-risk lunchbox options such as hard cheeses, well-washed fruit and vegetables, fruit muffins, and spreads like Vegemite or honey. Avoid high-risk foods like soft cheeses, deli meats and home-made (raw egg) mayonnaise. For more tips, check out our article on lunchbox food safety.