Food safety is important for everyone and we can all take simple steps to protect ourselves and others. The food we eat in Canada is among the safest in the world; however, foods can still become contaminated by bacteria, viruses, parasites, chemicals or other toxins, as it makes its way to the table. According to the Government of Canada, about 1 in 8 Canadians get sick due to food borne illness every year. Southwestern Public Health is committed to providing you with the tools and education to help keep you and your family healthy. This page includes important tips that you can use at home to help keep you safe from foodborne illness.
Foodborne illness, often called “food poisoning,” occurs when a person gets sick from consuming food or water that has been contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins or chemicals. Foodborne illness is the largest class of emerging infectious diseases.
Although often mistaken as a viral illness, like the 24-hour flu, Health Canada estimates that there are 2 million cases of foodborne illnesses in Canada each year.
The contaminated food that made you sick will not taste, look or smell different. Also, the symptoms may not appear immediately after you eat the contaminated food.
Some of the common symptoms of foodborne illness are:
- Abdominal pain and cramping
Infants, young children, adults over 60, anyone with a serious health condition, and pregnant women are more susceptible to foodborne illness than others.
Most cases of foodborne illness occur as a result of improper food handling and preparation by the consumer, such as:
- Lack of proper hand washing
- Cross-contamination of raw and ready-to-eat food items
- Improper cooking and reheating of food items
- Improper cooling of hazardous food items
- Improper defrosting of food items
- Poor food handler hygiene
- Food prepared by a sick food handler
Reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses by following these smart food safety practices:
- Clean – thoroughly wash your hands and cooking surfaces
Always wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before handling food and after handling meat, poultry, eggs and seafood and after changing diapers, touching pets and using the washroom.
Clean and then sanitize counter tops, cutting boards and utensils with a mild bleach solution (5ml/1 tsp. bleach per 750ml/3 cups water) before and after food preparation.
Discard worn cutting boards. Consider using paper towels to wipe kitchen surfaces or change dishcloths daily to avoid the possibility of cross-contamination and the spread of bacteria. Avoid using sponges because they are harder to keep bacteria-free, or wash them frequently in hot, soapy water.
- Separate – avoid cross contamination
Did you know that improper handling of raw meat, poultry and seafood can create an inviting environment for cross-contamination? As a result, bacteria can spread to other foods and throughout the kitchen. Clean and then sanitize counter tops, cutting boards and utensils with a mild bleach solution (5ml/1 tsp. bleach per 750ml/3 cups water) before and after food preparation. Consider using paper towels to wipe kitchen surfaces or change dishcloths daily to avoid spreading bacteria and, possibly, cross-contamination. Avoid using sponges because they are harder to keep bacteria-free, or wash them frequently in hot, soapy water.
If possible, use one cutting board for fresh produce and use a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood.
Food safety starts when you shop: separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other foods in your grocery shopping cart, when bagging your groceries and in your refrigerator.
Seal raw meat, poultry and seafood in air-tight containers or plastic bags and place them on the bottom shelves of your refrigerator to prevent juices from dripping onto other food.
- Chill – when in doubt - throw it out
Use the “two-hour rule” whether you’re shopping, cooking or serving. Refrigerate or freeze food within two hours of preparing it or buying it. If food has been left out for two hours or more, throw it out. On a hot day, foods like meat and dairy products may only last an hour without refrigeration.
Don’t over-stuff the refrigerator. Cold air needs to circulate above and beneath food to keep it safe.
- Cook – take the guess work out of cooking
One of the most important tools you can keep in your kitchen is a good quality thermometer.
Knowing the internal temperature of your meat is the only way to know you’ve destroyed harmful bacteria.
Cooking times vary for meats, poultry and fish. After cooking, keep foods out of the “danger zone” (4°C to 60°C or 40°F to 140°F) by preparing them quickly and serving them immediately.
When cooking in a microwave oven, make sure the food is cooked thoroughly. For best results, cover food, stir and rotate for even cooking and follow suggested standing times.
Not sure what temperature your food should be? Visit Health Canada’s Safe Internal Cooking Temperatures page and print their Safe Internal Cooking Temperatures Chart for proper cooking temperatures of high risk food items.
When in doubt, throw it out.
Freezing stops the growth of bacteria. Do not open the refrigerator or freezer door, unless absolutely necessary, in order to maintain the cold temperature.
- A full freezer will keep food frozen for about 48 hours. A freezer that is half full will keep food frozen for about 24 hours.
- An unopened refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours.
- If available, add ice to the refrigerator to keep the food at a safe temperature if the power will be out for long periods of time.
If storing your food outside in the winter, be sure to keep it away from the sunlight and animals.
If you know that a power failure will last for a long period of time, see if you can take the food to a friend nearby who has power.
Handling refrigerated and frozen food after a power failure
Discard any food that has been at room temperature for two or more hours, as well as any food that has an obvious unusual colour or odour. Keep in mind that food contaminated with bacteria does not necessarily smell bad or appear spoiled.
Food that still contains ice crystals or feels refrigerator-cold can be re-frozen.
If raw food has leaked during thawing, clean and disinfect the areas the food has touched. Do not reuse the cloths you have used for clean-up until they have been cleaned and disinfected.