Prevention & Recovery

How to avoid food poisoning

By: Anick Perreault-Labelle, with files from Brett Walther / Translation by Heidi Reinblatt

Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

How to avoid food poisoning

By: Anick Perreault-Labelle, with files from Brett Walther / Translation by Heidi Reinblatt

The holidays always herald an abundance of food -- and with that comes an increased potential for food poisoning. Here's how to reduce your risk of picking up a foodborne bug this season.

What exactly is food poisoning, anyway?
Food poisoning is caused by ingesting certain bacteria, viruses or parasites -- and it's more common than you might think. In fact, according to Paul Medeiros, director of food safety and quality consulting services at the Guelph Food Technology Centre in Guelph, Ont., roughly one out of every three Canadians falls prey to a foodborne illness -- which includes the likes of salmonella, E. coli and Listeria -- each year. But since the symptoms, which include cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and headaches, resemble those of the stomach flu, that's where we tend to lay the blame.

"You've heard people say, 'I've just got a 24-hour stomach flu,'" says Medeiros. "But guess what? There is no such thing as a 24-hour flu bug. What they've likely picked up in that instance is food poisoning."

Although in extreme cases, food poisoning can be fatal -- especially among seniors and those with weakened immune systems -- healthy individuals do not, for the most part, suffer serious consequences from eating contaminated food. The best remedy in most cases is plenty of rest and mild (and fresh!) foods. At the first sign of severe symptoms, however, do not hesitate to seek medical attention.

How can I curb contamination in my kitchen?
To start, make it a habit to scrub your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after you handle food. Next, keep raw and cooked foods separate to prevent cross-contamination. Both knives and cutting boards can be bacterial hot spots, so it's important to scrub them thoroughly with soap to avoid transferring germs from raw foods to other cooked or ready-to-eat foods.

Page 1 of 5 -- Discover how to keep your food safe on the buffet table with serving tips on page 2

How can I prevent bacteria from crashing my buffet?
Keep tabs on how long potentially dangerous perishables have been sitting out on the buffet at room temperature. If it's been two hours or longer, toss them. "After the two-hour mark, the quantity of bacteria doubles every 15 minutes," explains Marie-Ève Jalbert, an adviser with Quebec's food and animal health inspection agency.

Health Canada recommends using warming trays, chafing dishes and slow cookers to ensure that hot foods maintain a temperature of at least 140°F (60°C). Trays of cold foods, on the other hand, should be packed in crushed ice to maintain a temperature of 40°F (4°C).

You should also provide plenty of serving spoons or tongs -- one set per dish is best, even for finger foods and bowls of chips and candies -- to ensure people can serve themselves hygienically. "The greater the number of people who touched a dish, the greater the risk that it's been contaminated by unwashed or poorly washed hands," Jalbert says.

If my family's formal sit-down dinner tends to be a long, drawn-out affair, how can I possibly keep the food safe until dessert?
Avoid placing all of the food on the table at the beginning of the meal. Instead, keep hot dishes in the oven and cold dishes in the refrigerator, filling serving platters as needed. As an extra precaution, change serving platters each time you refill: Jalbert warns that leftovers on the old platters may have already spoiled and could contaminate fresh foods that you add to the plate.

Surely a fruit and veggie tray is always a safe bet?
Whole and raw fruits and vegetables are protected against bacteria and viruses by their peels. Once cut, however, these foods -- and melons specifically -- present a greater risk.

We rarely think of washing the outer rind of a melon, but it may well harbour germs, and when cut, these germs may be transferred from the knife to the melon's edible flesh. Sliced citrus fruits, like oranges, are less dangerous, since their high acid content provides a first line of defence. "And no double-dipping, of course," warns Canadian Living's registered dietitian, Cara Rosenbloom.

Page 2 of 5 -- Learn how to store Christmas dinner leftovers safely on page 3

That box of chocolates from dear Aunt Agnes looks suspiciously dusty, but the kids can't wait to dig in. How old is too old when it comes to candy?
"While not good forever, sweets remain fresh for a long time, provided that they are stored in a cool, dark and dry place," says Ginette Bourgeois, food safety instructor at the Quebec Tourism and Hotel Institute in Montreal.

Of course, a box of chocolates that's been sitting in the back of a cupboard for a year or two will be less flavourful than a freshly made batch, but it likely doesn't pose a risk to your health. It's also perfectly safe to consume chocolate that has developed white streaks: These simply indicate that the chocolate's fats have migrated to its surface.

However, if you're at all concerned, Rosenbloom suggests calling the manufacturer's information line. "All packaged foods in Canada are required to provide the manufacturer's contact information, so simply call and ask when the candy was made and if it expires," she suggests.

Which particular Christmas dinner leftovers pose the greatest risk?
"Perishables that have a high moisture content and low acidity, and are rich in proteins, are potentially dangerous because they promote the growth of bacteria," says Jalbert. These items include dishes that contain eggs, meat and dairy products -- except for yogurt, which contains acids that act as preservatives. Soft cheeses like Brie, which has a high moisture content, provide a more fertile breeding ground for bacteria than comparatively dry cheeses like Cheddar.

Prompt refrigeration will help extend the safe shelf life of leftovers, but, according to Health Canada, they should still be eaten within two to three days. Reheat solid leftovers such as turkey and potatoes to at least 165°F (74°C) before eating.

Page 3 of 5 -- Find advice on when it's time to throw out food from your fridge and freezer on page 4

Can a sniff test determine whether or not leftovers are dangerous?
We tend to rely heavily on the smell and appearance of foods when gauging their freshness. And while, in some cases, the nose does indeed know, it's ultimately not a reliable indicator of food safety.

In fact, "bacteria that pose a health hazard are not always the kind of bacteria that alter food's appearance," warns Christine Barthe, coordinator of food-risk evaluation for the ministry overseeing agriculture, fisheries and food in Quebec. The bottom line? When in doubt, throw it out.

An ice storm has taken out the electricity. At what point should I consider purging the contents of my fridge and freezer?
Just as you would when serving a buffet, throw away any perishables (meat, eggs and leftovers) that have spent two hours or more at room temperature, which is likely to be the case if the power outage lasts for longer than four hours. Be sure to keep the fridge door closed for the duration of the blackout to seal in the cold for as long as possible.

According to Ontario's Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, foods stored in a half-full freezer often remain frozen for a full day, even without power. In a freezer that's completely full, on the other hand, food may remain frozen for up to two days. These foods may be used if they are defrosted but still cold. However, they must be removed and cooked promptly; do not allow them to refreeze.

Page 4 of 5 -- Find expert advice on how to safely prepare turkey on page 5

Turkey preparation tips
A moist, golden-brown bird might steal the spotlight at your festive feast, but how you prepare turkey behind the scenes is just as important.

• According to Health Canada, thawing a turkey at room temperature can lead to bacterial growth. Instead, place the frozen turkey on the bottom shelf of the fridge (to avoid contaminating other foods) and allow one day of thawing for every four pounds of turkey.

Cook the turkey until it reaches a minimum internal temperature of 185°F (85°C). Check the temperature with a food thermometer, probing the thickest part of the breast or thigh. Always wash the thermometer in between uses.

• Roast stuffing separately from the turkey or remove the stuffing from the bird as soon as it is cooked. "The carcass of the bird can prevent the stuffing from heating and cooling rapidly, which means that it may spend too much time between 40°F (4°C) and 140°F (60°C)," says Jalbert. Those temperatures make for ideal conditions for the growth of bacteria.

• Refrigerate leftover turkey meat separately from stuffing and gravy.

This story was originally titled "Eat, Drink & Be Wary" in the December 2011 issue.

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Prevention & Recovery

How to avoid food poisoning