At Home

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People are often quick to blame the restaurant where they ate two hours ago for the queasiness in their stomach, but eating at home provides no guarantee against contracting a food-borne illness.

“When you follow food from the farm to dinner plate, there are multiple places where it comes into contact with bacteria,“ says Brenda Watson, executive director of the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety (www.canfightbac.org). “We need to be vigilant and consistent and do our part, but still enjoy the food we eat.”

Keep abreast of food recall. Want to know if there’s a chance the walnuts you just bought are tainted or your deli meat contains traces of listeria? Alice d’Anjou, a spokesperson for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, advises singing up for the food recall alerts at www.inspection.gc.ca. You can choose to have alerts delivered via Twitter, e-mail, or RSS feeds.

In the bag. “Bacteria are in our environment; they’re everywhere,” Watson says. She points out that even picking up an orange that’s been handled by someone with bacteria on his or her hands can cause cross contamination. “When I’m purchasing fruit and vegetables in an open bin, I put a produce bag on my hand to pick up the item,” she says.

Mainly because of the meat. When you buy fresh meat, poultry, and fish at the grocery store, “they’re usually wrapped well,” Watson says, but even one bacteria-filled drip on your other groceries is enough to contaminate them. She suggests double bagging meat, fish, or poultry in a plastic produce bag and storing them separately in your grocery cart. Keep raw foods (even veggies) separate from prepared foods on the way home (you might even keep a cooler in the trunk for meat products) and in the fridge.

Treat the kitchen like an operating room. Counters should be kept scrupulously clean, Watson says, and that means keeping them clear of your kids’ backpacks, your purse, and anything else that might impart an unwanted dose of bacteria. Her recipe for a sanitizing counter spray: mix 3 cup of water (750 ml) with a teaspoon (5ml) of household bleach. Spray counters and let it sit for one minute, and then dry with a paper towel.

Make sure your cutting boards are in good condition.  How you care for them is more important then whether they’re made of wood, plastic, or glass, Watson contends, but it’s a good idea to keep separate cutting boards for meat and veg. To clean your cutting boards, she suggests, scrub them down with a brush, spray them with the same sanitizing solution you use on the counter, let sit, and then rinse and dry thoroughly. “Don’t put them away moist,” Watson warns. “A moist environment is one where bacteria love to accumulate.”

Keep hands clean. Wash up between steps when preparing foods. And if you have pets, wash your hands after you touch them and keep them away from the food prep area.

Don’t ignore invisible breeding grounds for germs. “The door handle of the refrigerator is one of the places we forget to clean frequently and yet we touch it all the time,” Watson says. In addition, wash your sponges, dishcloths, or dish towels in hot water frequently.

Wash all fruits and veg, even if you don’t eat the skin. “I washed the orange I had at lunch before I cut it up,” Watson says. “That way I’m not contaminating the inside with bacteria from the outside as I slice through the fruit.”

Once it’s open, use it up. The “best-before” dates you see on any food that keeps for 90 days or less are meant to give you info about the freshness and potential shelf life of the properly stored unopened food you’re buying. Once you’ve opened that package of lettuce or poured the first glass of milk, Watson says, “you still need to use the food up within a few days.”

When in doubt, throw it out. Most leftovers and opened food products should be tossed within two or three days if they haven’t been used up. “You can’t always smell it when food is off,” Watson says.

When it comes to leftovers go low. Refrigerate leftovers as soon as you’ve finished eating, and use shallow, covered containers so that they chill quickly. A big batch of soup or stew won’t chill in the centre fast enough if you just plop the whole pot in the fridge, according to Watson. “The guideline I use is that the container should be no deeper than my fist.”

Don’t over-stuff your fridge. Your refrigerator needs to chill to 40C (390F) or lower to be effective. If it’s crammed full of food, the air can’t circulate properly and it may not cool food properly. Another tip: if you’ve just plugged in the cottage fridge, remember to give it time to cool. “It needs to come down to temperature before you start to load it up,” Watson says.

Take your food’s temperature. “If I’m serving ix people hamburgers, I will check each one with the food thermometer,” Watson says. “And I wash it in between.” She also uses her thermometer to check the temperature of reheated left-overs, cassroles, thick-crust pizzas, or big pots of soup to ensure that centre is hot enough. “It’s a valuable tool for anyone in the kitchen,” she says.

5 Things You Need to Know

Dr. Stewart McMillan, of Regina, SK, was named one of the 10 most exceptional family physicians for 2011 by the College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC). Here are five things he thinks you should know about food poisoning:

  1. Certain people are more prone to food-borne illnesses. People with a weakened immune system, including the elderly and young children, as well as pregnant women, are most susceptible.
  2. The most common symptoms are nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Many people just assume they have the 24 hour flu, but if you don’t have achy joints and feel generally unwell, you may well have fallen victim to a food-borne illness.
  3. Food poisoning usually doesn’t set in right away. Very rarely, you’ll experience symptoms within a few minutes, but in most cases it takes at least 12 hours and more likely 24 to 48 hours before you “feel the worse for wear,” McMillan says.
  4. Treat food poisoning with rest and plenty of fluids. Stay away from solid foods and stick with water, juice, and electrolyte solutions. To prevent dehydration, you might occasionally need to take a mild antinauseant like Gravol. But “we usually tell people not to do anything to stop the diarrhea,” McMillan says. “It’s best to empty the system out. As long as you can keep up with the fluids, you should be okay.”
  5. In race cases, food poisoning can cause serious illness and even death. See a doctor if you can’t stop vomiting and you have a fever over 38.60C (101,50F) or blood in your stools. Signs of dehydration include decreased urination, feeling cold and shivering, dry mouth and throat, and dizziness when standing. If your urine starts to get dark and concentrated, you should seek medical attention, McMillan says.
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