When preparing a feast, it is imperative to follow a few rules for safe food handling, because food poisoning is probably not on the list of gifts you wish to bestow upon your guests!
The many faces of food poisoning Food poisoning (also called food intoxication or foodborne illnesses) occurs after we eat contaminated foods. Some of these contaminants may come from sources over which we have no control as consumers. We can protect ourselves against many food contaminants, however, by following a few safety rules.
Food poisoning usually presents as digestive symptoms: stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache and fever. These symptoms can appear within a few hours or a few days, depending on the type of contaminant ingested. In certain severe cases (e.g. botulism), the symptoms are more serious and may include full-body paralysis, speech and vision problems, and in extreme cases, even death.
An ounce of prevention… Every year, between 11 and 13 million Canadians suffer from foodborne illnesses. Most of the time, these cases of food poisoning can be attributed to negligence or improper food handling. The four main culprits are inadequate food cooling, insufficient cooking, improper storage temperature and cross-contamination. Cross-contamination is a transfer of bacteria between a raw food and one that is ready to eat. We can easily avoid food poisoning by making sure we respect these few simple rules.
Making smart choices The first step in avoiding unpleasant surprises is to always buy your groceries from a reputable merchant. Also, take the time to inspect food products for their visual appearance and to make sure the packaging is intact. Never buy food that doesn’t look quite right. Lastly, always check the best-before date (sometimes written as “use by”) and only buy the product if you can eat it or freeze it by that date.
The right storage temperature First, bear in mind that temperature has an impact on the growth of micro-organisms: bacteria multiply faster when food temperatures are between 4 and 60°C. For example, between 35 and 45°C, micro-organisms can double in number every 15 minutes! Warm foods must be kept at temperatures above 60°C in order to destroy bacteria or prevent them from multiplying.
When you finish cooking your meal, you should immediately transfer leftovers to smaller containers. Once the food has cooled slightly (to approximately 60°C), partially cover it and put it in the refrigerator right away. Once the food has cooled completely, you can seal the container. To speed up the cooling process, you can also place containers in cold or ice water while you stir the contents to let the heat escape. These techniques allow you to refrigerate foods more promptly and avoid leaving them exposed to the air for too long.
Refrigerated foods, for their part, must be stored at temperatures of 4°C or colder in order to slow the growth of bacteria. It is also important to keep refrigerated foods in sealed containers in order to prevent juices from escaping (such as those from raw meats) and contaminating other foods in your refrigerator. Finally, always respect the “refrigerate after opening” notice that sometimes appears on packaging.
Lastly, frozen foods must be stored at -18°C or colder in order to slow the growth of bacteria. It is very important to freeze foods when they are still fresh, in other words while they contain a minimal amount of bacteria. Storing foods in containers especially designed for freezer use will help preserve them better. These types of containers eliminate all contact with air, preventing freezer burn. The optimal amount of time to keep foods frozen varies from one food to the next.
For more information on food storage, refer to the handy charts published by the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education at http://www.canfightbac.org/cpcfse/en/cookwell/charts/.
Beware of how you thaw food! Appropriate thawing methods must also be observed in order to avoid food contamination. There are four safe methods you can use: thawing in the refrigerator, thawing in the microwave followed by immediate cooking, thawing in a conventional oven combined with cooking, and thawing under cold running water (never use warm or hot water).
Cooking Proper cooking destroys the harmful bacteria that can enter raw foods. This is especially important when it comes to ground meat, which undergoes several handling processes and is therefore more susceptible to becoming contaminated.
Food poisoning, particularly hamburger disease, is often caused by E. coli bacteria, which can be eradicated by thoroughly cooking the meat. Only the use of a meat thermometer can confirm that a sufficient internal temperature has been reached, as meat will brown before the bacteria are completely eliminated by the heat.
For more information on proper cooking temperatures, see the reference mentioned in the food storage section, above.
Respecting proper hygiene practices is the best strategy Following a few basic hygiene rules can make all the difference. One good solution is to wash your hands any time there is a risk of contamination. In addition, if you have a wound on your hands, always cover it with a waterproof bandage and wear disposable gloves when preparing foods. Individuals with a contagious illness should abstain from handling foods. Another good practice is to use utensils instead of your hands to avoid the risk of contamination. Lastly, in order to avoid cross-contamination, keep raw meat products from touching any food that is ready to eat (do not use the same plates or utensils, unless they have been washed).
Treatment The treatment for food poisoning varies depending on its origin. Your pharmacist can help you determine whether you should consult a physician. If your symptoms are mild, a pharmacist can recommend tips and products to help relieve them. In some cases, taking antibiotics may be required for a full recovery, and in more severe cases, hospitalization may prove necessary.
Vigilance is always in order According to the “FightBAC!” campaign on Health Canada’s website, food safety measures can be summed up in four words:
1) CLEAN: wash hands and work surfaces often 2) COOK: cook foods to proper temperatures (especially when it comes to meat products) 3) SEPARATE: avoid cross-contamination by keeping foods separate 4) CHILL: refrigerate perishable items promptly.
By respecting these four golden rules, you can ensure that your feasts are a great success!