Be serious with rice

12/05/2016 - 07:32
Food poisoning from rice sounds a bit overdramatic, but it is real threat if cooked rice is not handled properly, says Fiona Sinclair of food safety consultancy STS.

Chicken, eggs and shellfish are classic high-risk items when it comes to food poisoning, but what is not so well known is that lower-profile products such as rice, pasta, couscous and other cereal-based starchy foods carry just as much risk.

It is, though, something of a grey area and, to be honest, food professionals may well be aware of the risks without knowing what they actually are.

In a cost-sensitive food environment, where food waste and cost reduction issues are key, certain foods lend themselves to recycling, reheating and re-serving.

Many caterers in education, healthcare and B&I operations can find themselves needing to reheat rice, grains or pasta, reheating dishes with sauces that are left over at the end of service or batch cooking for reheating at a later date – and when service is over, storing in commercial fridges. If this is the case, then what are the risks and what steps need to be taken?

Cooking and serving rice can carry certain risks if it is not done correctly. However, it is possible to safely cook and serve, and even reheat rice, as long as strict attention to all levels of food safety and good practice are observed, which will help to minimise risk.

The main risk comes from the Bacillus cereus spore-forming bacterium that is naturally found in rice, couscous and bulgur wheat, as well as in all types of pasta. Washing will not help avoid the potential problem as B. cereus bacteria are literally embedded in the grains and cannot be removed, making careful food preparation, heating and serving critical.

When rice is cooked, it can be consumed quite safely if it is eaten immediately when hot. However, the B. cereus bacteria survive cooking by forming protective spores and, when the temperature conditions are again favourable and the rice is left in the ‘danger zone’ of 5–63°C for a prolonged period of time, these spores will begin to germinate.

This causes the B. cereus bacteria to be released into the rice where they will grow and multiply, excreting a poisonous waste product called exotoxin.

This toxin is heat stable and, therefore, even if the rice is thoroughly reheated before consumption, it will still be present in the food. The poison affects the upper gastrointestinal tract, and the consequences of eating food containing the toxin will be abdominal cramps and vomiting within one to five hours after eating, with the symptoms lasting from six up to 24 hours.

Furthermore, if the rice is not piping hot before consumption, the bacteria are broken down in the intestine where they release another type of poison called endotoxin that, within eight to 12 hours, will result in stomach pains and diarrhoea that may last for up to two days.

If rice is served cold and has been subject to temperature abuse, or not been reheated thoroughly before being left in the danger zone, then your customers could experience the full effects of B. cereus.

So, what are the rules when cooking and re-heating rice? To reduce risks, it is always best to cook and serve fresh rice whenever possible. Cooking and even reheating rice safely to prevent food poisoning is simple and straightforward, as long good strict food hygiene and safety procedures are observed.

Food poisoning is quite easily prevented by following simple time/temperature controls:

  • ensure that dry rice is stored in dry conditions – dried rice contains B. cereus spores, so if rice becomes damp, the moisture can cause the spores to germinate
  • avoid cross-contamination of B. cereus from dried rice to other foods in storage, especially to ready-to-eat food
  • cook rice thoroughly, to 75°C or above, and serve immediately
  • if rice is not to be served immediately, keep it hot at least 63°C
  • when cooling to serve cold or to store in a refrigerator, cool as quickly as possible using cold running water and refrigerate at 5°C or below
  • never leave rice at room temperature unnecessarily.

The steps that are required to avoid food poisoning with B. cereus are the same as those needed to prevent many other types of bacterial food poisoning. Stick to these guidelines, and you can be sure your customers and your business we will be safer.

For more guidance on food safety and the management of health and safety issues more generally, visit

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