FOCUS ON HEALTH
By Sylvanus Thompson
Food is necessary for life, and preparing and providing food for human consumption is an important economic, social and cultural activity. However, eating food also carries the potential risk of foodborne illness, with direct and indirect impacts on society.
Foodborne illness occurs when eating foods with enough harmful germs to make you sick. The most common symptoms of foodborne illness are gastrointestinal and include loss of appetite, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. Symptoms can go away on their own or with treatment and can occur hours to months after an exposure to the bacteria, virus or fungus. On rare occasions, infection from contaminated food can lead to chronic or serious illness requiring hospitalization, or be fatal. Illness and mortality associated with food results in significant social and economic costs through health care expenditures, lost productivity and the impact of reduced consumer confidence on the food industry. Health Canada estimates that there are 11 to 13 million cases of foodborne illness in Canada each year.
As we enjoy the summer season with our outdoor barbecues and picnics, let us not forget to keep food safety in mind when preparing meals. Cooking and eating outdoors can present potential food safety challenges with harmful bacteria spreading quickly in warm and moist conditions that could result in food poisoning. Following a few basic rules can go a long way in preventing food-borne illnesses and making sure your summer meals are safe and healthy.
Purchasing of food
Being a smart consumer will help protect you and your family from food poisoning. More diverse and exciting food choices are emerging every day. Consumers should think about food safety before purchasing food, whether it’s from your favourite store or when ordering food online. Tips about how you can keep you and your family safe when buying food include:
- Checking the DineSafe website (http://www.toronto.ca/dinesafe) before purchasing your food to learn more about where your food is being prepared. If the restaurant or shop is listed on the DineSafe website, you will know that it is regularly inspected.. Other municipalities outside of Toronto may also have an online disclosure system.
- Reviewing the food establishment’s inspection history to learn about its food handling practices.
- Purchasing food from stores, restaurants and shops that are inspected by a local health unit/department.
Picnics and parties
Packaging food properly is a key step in home food safety. If you are going on a picnic, carry food in a cooler with a cold pack or on ice. When possible, keep the cooler in the shade with the lid closed. Non-carbonated drinks can be frozen and used as cold packs in lunches to keep your food cold. Always separate raw foods from cooked or ready to eat foods. Coolers should be cleaned after they are used to remove any spills or visible dirt.
Perishable party foods should be kept on ice or served on platters directly from the refrigerator. Keep platters of food that require heating refrigerated until it is time to warm them in the oven for serving. Do not leave meat out at room temperature for more than two hours. If you like to marinate food, do so in the refrigerator to prevent harmful bacteria from growing.
To help prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, always begin with a clean work space when preparing food and always start by washing your hands in warm soapy water. Cooking equipment, surfaces and any food contact surface must be clean. Bacteria can live on kitchen towels, sponges and cloths so be sure to wash and replace these items often. Cross-contamination occurs when ready-to-eat food comes into contact with bacteria, chemicals or unsafe items. Cross-contamination commonly happens in 3 ways:
- Raw meat and/or its juices come into contact with cooked or ready-to-eat food.
- Dirty hands come into contact with cooked or ready-to-eat food.
- Dirty utensils come into contact with cooked or ready-to-eat food.
When possible use a separate cutting board for raw meat, fish and chicken. This helps to prevent cross-contamination. If you do not have more than one board, make certain to wash your hands, cutting boards and knife in hot soapy water after cutting one food item and continuing onto the next. Remember to properly wash your hands often—especially after handling raw meat and its juices.
Cooking food to the proper internal temperature
Cooking to the proper internal temperature kills harmful bacteria. Use a probe thermometer to check that the food is cooked to the proper internal temperature. Hamburger meat that is red in the middle is undercooked and is not safe to eat.
Make food safety your responsibility
Illness resulting from consuming food is widespread and all foods, including fruits and vegetables, have the potential to cause illness since microorganisms can exist on all surfaces. However, some studies estimate that about 85 per cent of all cases of foodborne illness could be prevented if food is handled properly. The food industry, regulators and consumers all have important roles to play in ensuring food safety.
The best way to reduce the risk of foodborne illness is by always adopting basic food safety practices.