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Food poisoning: Protecting your family

Girl enjoying BBQ in summer Girl enjoying BBQ in summer

Food poisoning (also known as food-borne illness) occurs when food is not prepared or handled correctly. All foods have the potential to cause food-borne illness.

Illness occurs when harmful micro-organisms such as bacteria, viruses or parasites get in the food. These micro-organisms often cannot be seen, tasted or smelled.

Young children are at higher risk for food-borne illnesses because their stomachs produce lower amounts of the acid that kills harmful bacteria. This makes it easier for them to get sick.

Symptoms of food poisoning

The consequences of eating contaminated foods can be very serious. Symptoms may include:

Food poisoning can also lead to dehydration.

Common food poisoning bacteria

Some common bacteria, viruses and parasites that can cause food poisoning include:

  • botulism (sources include canned foods, and non-refrigerated low acid fruit juices such as carrot juice)
  • E. coli (sources include raw or undercooked meat, contaminated fruits or vegetables and unpasteurized apple juice, apple cider or raw milk)
  • salmonella (sources include raw or undercooked poultry, raw or undercooked eggs and unpasteurized dairy products)
  • hepatitis A (sources include contaminated water, raw or undercooked shellfish and raw vegetables and fruit)
  • listeria (sources include deli meats and hot dogs, raw or unpasteurized soft cheeses and refrigerated smoked seafood and fish)
  • campylobacter (sources include raw or undercooked poultry and meat, raw vegetables and raw milk).

Visit the Health Canada Website for more details about these bacteria and how they cause food poisoning.

Tips to reduce the risk of food poisoning

Keep clean

  • Always wash your hands ​with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food. You should also wash your hands before you touch raw meat, poultry, fish or seafood and after using the washroom, touching pets or changing diapers.
  • Wash all utensils, dishes, cutting boards and counter tops with hot soapy water before and after preparing food.
  • Wash vegetables and fruit under cool, running, drinkable water before serving or cooking them. Avoid soaking fresh fruits and vegetables in a sink full of water, as the sink may have bacteria that can transfer to the produce.
  • Wash reusable grocery bags frequently, especially if they have carried raw meat, poultry, seafood or fish.

Cook food to proper temperatures

  • Cook foods to their safe internal temperatures. This kills the harmful micro-organisms that cause food poisoning.
  • The safe internal temperature is different than the cooking temperature and should be checked with a food thermometer. Colour alone is not a reliable sign that your food is safe to eat.

​Visit the Health Canada website to check the safe internal temperatures​ of different foods.

​Thaw frozen foods properly

Never leave frozen raw meat on the counter to thaw at room temperature. Instead, thaw it in the refrigerator, a microwave oven or cold water. If thawing in cold water, replace the water every 30 minutes.

Avoid the temperature danger zone

Do not keep perishable foods (foods that can go bad) at temperatures between 4°C and 60°C (about 40°F to 140°F) for more than two hours. Micro-organisms can grow quickly at these temperatures.

Keep hot food hot

Keep food hot (above 60°C or about 140°F) if it is not going to be eaten right away. Use a hot plate, wrap food in tin foil or use insulated containers.

Keep cold food cold

  • Keep foods that need refrigeration at temperatures below 4°C (less than about 40°F). If they are allowed to warm up, micro-organisms may start to grow.
  • Separate large portions of leftover food and divide them into small, shallow containers less than 8 cm (3 inches) deep for quicker cooling in the refrigerator.
  • When travelling with cold foods, bring a cooler with ice or freezer packs.

Do not cross-contaminate

  • Separate meats and their juices from other foods when preparing and storing them. Micro-organisms from raw meat and poultry can spread to other foods. Meat juices can drip from packages or be transferred through hands or utensils.
  • Clean all surfaces and cooking utensils, including your food thermometer, that may come in contact with meats or their juices.

When in doubt, throw it out!

  • Never sample food that has expired or that you suspect may have gone bad.
  • If you are unsure whether a food is safe to eat, throw it out.
  • Do not eat canned food if the can is bulging or dented or appears to have a leak.
  • Do not use a microwave to re-heat leftover food that you suspect has gone bad. The microwaves will not destroy the micro-organisms if a food has been handled incorrectly.
  • If a food looks, smells or tastes off, throw it out!

​Safe food alternatives for children

  • Serve pasteurized milk, juice or cider instead of raw or unpasteurized drinks.
  • Do not give honey to infants less than 12 months of age.
  • Always cook hot dogs before serving them. Never serve them straight from the package.
  • Always make sure eggs are cooked through. Do not serve raw or lightly-cooked eggs or egg products such as cookie dough, cake batter or homemade eggnog.
  • Avoid raw or undercooked meat and do not let your child touch raw meat, poultry or fish.

Reporting a food safety concern

If you are concerned that a food product may pose a health or safety risk, report the product to your local board of health or food inspection agency.

Key points

  • Food poisoning can be very serious. Younger children are at higher risk.
  • Most food poisoning can be prevented with proper cleaning and cooking.
  • Cook foods to their safe internal temperature and thaw foods in a refrigerator, microwave or bowl of cold water.
  • Serve children only pasteurized milk, juice or cider and eggs and egg products that have been cooked through.
Kellie Welch, RD
6/11/2014
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