After her daughter was born, Erin Scott*, 40, of Edmonton, became especially concerned with preparing and cooking foods safely.
Scott has a reason to be worried. According to the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education, between 11 and 13 million Canadians suffer from food-borne illness every year.
“I didn’t think I knew enough about what the dangers are in cooking food and about how to choose the foods my family eats,” said Scott.
In the last few years, food safety has become an increasing concern for Canadians.
*Her name has been changed.
Despite these cases, food specialists stress that how you prepare and store food at home is the most important way to avoid food-borne illness.
Sometimes people just assume food is safe. They may not have the required education about food storage and preparation, says one food specialist.
“When people go to the grocery store and purchase food, they expect a certain level of safety,” says Dr. Lynn McMullen, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Alberta.
“Certainly with raw meat they know there is a risk there in how they cook it, but a lot of people assume fruits and vegetables are safe, which is not necessarily the case. We still have to have some respect for them. They can still carry food-borne pathogens.”
Pat Inglis, a food safety information officer, agrees.
“The way we cook has changed drastically … We are using many more partially prepared and fully prepared foods. That changes how foods can be stored, how long they can be stored and how they should be reheated,” says Inglis, who works for the Food Safety Information Society.
“Safe procedures can be learned. They are not a time-consuming thing. They just become part of your routine.”
Food-borne illness can be very serious in certain people, says McMullen. Elderly people, children, pregnant women and people with suppressed immune systems have the potential to die.
“Most people are likely OK. They have some stomach upset and diarrhea, but food-borne illness is very serious for some. They can’t afford to take any risks,” says McMullen.
Dr. McMullen emphasizes that Canada has one of the safest food supplies in the world, but warns there are still inherent dangers.
Follow the steps below to greatly decrease your chances of illness.
Ensuring Food Safety
Dr. McMullen says that mishandling of foods in the home can be a problem. For example, you might handle raw chicken on the counter or sink. If you then prepare a food (one that isn’t later cooked) on that unclean counter or sink, you risk bacteria from the meat getting on to the uncooked food.
- A solution of one teaspoon (five millilitres) of bleach to three cups (750 millilitres) of water is useful to clean counters, cutting boards, sinks and other work surfaces thoroughly during food preparation.
- Don’t store uncooked foods where meat can drip on them or otherwise come in contact with them, such as in the fridge.
- Use two cutting boards: one for meats and one for uncooked foods.
Practising Good Personal Hygiene
- Washing hands after going to the bathroom is crucial. You could be spread E.coli or salmonella.
- While preparing food, wash hands after touching your hair or a pet, after sneezing or after taking out the garbage (after any task that could contaminate your hands).
- Wash fruits and vegetables with running water to flush away any bacteria, etc. Vinegar and soap are not necessary.
- Even produce with skins that you don’t eat should be washed. Once bacteria is on produce, it can be hard to remove. Reduce the risk by being extra careful.
- Both Inglis and McMullen also recommend rewashing bagged salads. The chlorine rinses used to clean them do not work well with organic matter, such as vegetables.
- McMullen adds that washing chicken is not necessary. Doing so just spreads bacteria around the kitchen.
- People with compromised immune systems, such as a person taking chemotherapy or with AIDS, should be careful with raw fruits and vegetables. For example, cooking vegetables is recommended. “The risk of severe consequences, possibly death, from bacteria on raw produce is greater,” says McMullen.
Watching Temperatures (Both Cold and Hot)
- Ensure that your fridge is set to less than 4° C (less than 40° F). “A majority of food-borne pathogens do not grow at less than 4° C,” says McMullen.
- Cook to proper temperatures. Hamburger, for example, must be well done. After cooking, keep foods out of the danger zone (4° C to 60° C or 40° F to 140° F) by making them quickly. Serve immediately.
- Use a thermometer to check that meat is cooked. Wash it each time it is used. “I can’t live without a thermometer now. The meat isn’t dry or undercooked,” says Inglis.
- Store leftovers before they have been sitting out for longer than two hours. When in doubt about a leftover food, throw it out.
- If you are suddenly cooking for a larger group of people, make sure to divide leftovers into smaller containers to be refrigerated (instead of storing them in the fridge in one large container). With a large volume, says McMullen, a fridge does not have the ability to cool the food down quickly enough. Bacteria could grow in these conditions.
Avoiding Raw Milk
- Pregnant women and people with suppressed immune systems should not eat cheese made with raw milk
- The bacterium Listeria homogeneous can be found in raw milk. This bacterium causes severe illness and even death.
Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education
A group of Canadian organizations committed to educating Canadians about the importance of food safety in the home.
Cooking Charts: An Industry Standard Chart
Charts showing recommended cooking temperatures.