Description: Don’t Let Supper Make You Sick

Here’s what you need to know to keep you and your loved ones from food-borne diseases.

Collette Skelley was desperately trying to listen to her friend Mary as she chatted away. The women had both ordered the marlin at a popular Toronto restaurant and were just a few bites in when Skelley began to feel dizzy and uncomfortable. “The pattern on the back of the couch where Mary was sitting began to blur and move,” she says. “And I began to feel a bit warm.” After walking around the restaurant and stepping outside for some air, Skelley only felt worse. “I think I’m going to have to leave,” she told her friend.

She barely made it home before the vomiting and diarrhea began. “I’ve never been so sick in my life,” she recalls now. Even more worrisome, the whites of her eyes were ”the colour of a red apple.” Skelley’s grown son took one look and called the poise control hotline. The verdict: scombroid, a food-borne illness caused by bad fish. While Skelley had a terrible night, she considers herself lucky. “I was better by the next morning,” she says, “but Mary ended up in hospital.”

While she may have had a particularly bad case of food poisoning, Skelley’s case is far from unique. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) estimates there are some 11 to 13 million cases of food-borne illness every year in Canada. That means about one in every three Canadians will suffer from food poisoning annually. The good news: whether you’re eating at home or dining out, there are ways to reduce your risk.

Dining Out

Description: Dining Out

As Shelley and her friend found out, dining out comes with a side serving of risk. While no one knows for sure how many cases of food poisoning are caused by restaurant foods, one analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United State indicated that about 52 per cent of food-borne illnesses between 1998 and 2004 were associated with restaurants, delis, cafeterias, or hotels.

Jim Chan, who has been a health inspector for the City of Toronto for 34 years, still manages to enjoy eating out. “I do have confidence in general in food operators,” he says, pointing out that only 36 of the 16,000 restaurants in Toronto were closed down last year for health violations. Nonetheless, he points out, there’s nothing wrong with applying a dad of caution when you’re eating outside the home.

Check out the restaurant’s record. Since the City of Toronto introduced its Dine Safe program in 2001,the number of crucial (potentially dangerous) infractions identified by health inspectors and the reported incidents of food-borne illnesses have both dropped. The key reason: restaurants must post the results of inspections in the form of either a green sign (pass), a yellow sign (indicates a significant infraction that mist be dealt with in 48 hours), or a red sign (the restaurant is shut down over food safety concerns). Several other municipalities have introduced similar programs. But even if yours isn’t one of them, you can generally check out a restaurant’s food safety record online. Try www.healthinspections.ca to locate restaurant inspection reports for your area.

Listen to your eyes. “Don’t be wooed by nice decorations,” Chan advises. Look in the corners of the dining room for dirt and check out the food serving station, the fingernails of your server, and the cutlery on the table. In addition, he says, take note of conditions in the washrooms. “If the soap containers aren’t being filled and there’s paper, dirt, and garbage all over the place, that’s and indication that operator is not paying attention to rest of the establishment.” Run away. Fast.

Make sure it’s done like dinner. Meat, fish, and poultry need to be well cooked. If you notice reddish-hued juice running out of your dinner, or a glutinous texture in the case of fish, send it back to be cooked some more, or choose another menu option, Chan says. “From a health inspector’s point of view, that is undercooked and that increases your chance of getting food poisoning.”

Opt for ever-easy. Or scrambled. Or boiled. Or omelettes. Although eggs are generally very safe in Canada, Chan says, “we still advise that people avoid eating very running, undercooked eggs.”

Feeling hot, hot, hot. If your soup is served cold, or the hot food on a buffet isn’t steamy, it might indicate that food has been sitting around too long. “We always tell operators not to put out a big tray of chicken and let it sit for an hour or two,” Chan says. “Instead they should put out a smaller portion and keep refilling it.”

Chill out. Just as hot food should be kept hot, cold food needs to be chilled. Look for salad greens and other cold food items to be sitting on a bed of ice at a buffet.

Treat doggy bags with caution. If you’ve had a lingering dinner you might want to think twice about taking your half-eaten steak, or even your rice or pasta, home in a doggie bag. “It may have been sitting there for several hours already,” Chan warns. “And then you might add another hour or two of incubation time for the bacteria before you get it in the refrigerator.” When you reheat leftovers, he advises, make sure the food gets really hot “as close to the cooking temperature as possible.” (See chart for suggested cooking temps.)

Tattle. If you think there’s a food safety risk out there, call your local health unit and inform the safety inspector. “We respond to 2,000 to 3,000 complaints per year,” Chan says, “We investigate them all.”

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