Like most modernized countries, Canada has a very safe food supply industry. High food inspection standards, shortened time-to-market and the availability of refrigeration have all contributed to a lowering of the risk of food related illnesses. We do still have to exercise some caution though, if we’re going to avoid all of the issues that food-borne bacteria, parasites and viruses can cause.
Every year, millions of people in Canada alone will be affected by a food related ailment. Although most instances are treatable at home, ‘food poisoning’ can lead to hospitalization and even death in some cases.
What is Food Poisoning?
It comes in various forms and can be caused by a number of different factors. From contaminated soil and water during production, to animal viruses, a lack of pasteurization and refrigeration, to poor food handling, preparation and storage. They come with scary names like Clostridium Botulinum, Cyclospora, Listeria, Salmonella, E. coli and Toxoplasma, and can hit you within hours of consuming tainted food. Almost all forms of poisoning can produce nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, fever, headaches and diarrhea. Those at greater risk of more serious illness would include children under the age of 5, seniors, those who may be pregnant or who may have an immune deficiency. Usually people will recover fairly quickly with no lasting complications, but in some cases, serious health issues can occur.
Basically, illness of this nature is caused by food that has become contaminated. So understanding how to properly buy, handle, cook and store your food can go a long way in helping to prevent poisoning. Here are some tips that can help you to minimize the risk.
This is your first step in the process. Get this one right and you’re well on your way.
- When purchasing any item that may spoil (meats, dairy, eggs, seafood etc.), always be sure to check the expiration or ‘best before’ dates to ensure freshness. Also avoid buying items that appear old, are discoloured or have a bad odour.
- If you have a long drive home from the store, consider putting perishable items into a cooler to help keep them fresh
- When bagging your groceries, keep meats separate from other items (especially produce)
- When buying eggs, ensure that they are Grade A or AA and check the carton to make sure they are clean and free of cracks
- Avoid buying fruit with broken skin, dented cans or any item where the seal appears to have been broken. In these cases, bacteria can enter through the opening and contaminate the contents.
Preparation & Cooking
Handling, preparing and cooking food is where most issues with contamination occur.
- Be sure to keep raw meat, poultry and seafood in separate, sealed containers and away from other items in your fridge. If you can’t use them within 3 days of purchase, then freeze the items right away.
- Thaw any frozen perishable items like meats, poultry and seafood in the fridge, the microwave or in cold water. Never thaw foods at room temperature, as this is an ideal breeding ground for bacteria.
- Wash your produce thoroughly under cool running water instead of soaking it in the sink. Bacteria in the sink could be transferred to your food if you let it sit. Also be sure to cut away any areas that appear soft or spoiled.
- Use a separate cutting board for meats and another for produce and other items to prevent any cross-contamination. Cleaning your knives frequently as you work also helps in the same way.
- Never let raw foods come in contact with items that have already been cooked. Also remember to clean any plates or trays used to transport raw items back and forth.
- Be sure to cook food completely and use a clean thermometer to measure the internal temperature of the thickest pieces. Proper preparation of food is a sure way to kill bacteria through the heating process.
- As a general rule, keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. This avoids the temperature ‘danger zone’ that can lead to the quick development of bacteria.
Proper storage of your food items, including leftovers, helps them to stay fresher, longer.
- Be sure to keep your refrigerator and freezer at the recommended temperature settings for optimal operation
- Don’t overstock your fridge to the point where the cool air can’t circulate properly
- Use sealed, air-tight containers to store leftovers
- Consume refrigerated leftovers within 2 to 4 days to minimize the risk of spoilage
- With large cooked birds like chickens or turkeys, always cut away the meat from the bones before storing
- There’s a rule that will always apply to food storage - ‘When in doubt – throw it out’. You never want to take a chance on making yourself sick if something doesn’t seem right.
Cleaning and sanitizing also plays a major role in minimizing the risk of bacteria growth and distribution.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap before and after handling both raw and cooked foods. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer is a good alternative.
- Sanitize countertops, cutting boards, knives and other utensils before and after use. Use a good commercial kitchen cleaner or a weak bleach solution on counters, and either a hot water wash with soap in the sink or in the dishwasher for other items.
- Use paper towels to wipe kitchen surfaces rather than using dishcloths or sponges. A clean, disposable item will be less likely to cross-contaminate or simply spread bacteria around.
- Remember to wash your reusable grocery bags on a regular basis to help keep the bacteria in check
Food poisoning can run from mild to serious and can lead to some very unpleasant symptoms. A little diligence though can really reduce your risk.