Foodborne illness replay: Party hard – eat safe

Toronto is finally getting some global recognition in the food world. Unfortunately it’s not the kind of attention we’d like. Everyone is hearing about the Canadian National Exhibition and the Cronutburger’s possible link to foodborne illness.

Here’s a replay from last November with some tips on avoiding food poisoning.


Are you tired of hearing about foodborne illnesses?  Well consider that, at this time of year  as holiday festivities get underway, the risk of food poisoning can soar.  While these illnesses are often thought of in terms of  stomach problems, there’s much more to be concerned about.

Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada estimate that every year between 11 and 13 million Canadians suffer from illnesses caused by foodborne bacteria. Health Canada also estimates that the annual cost related to these illnesses, and related deaths, is staggering –  between 12 and 14 billion dollars.

Yet, many people who become victims of food poisoning don’t actually recognize what has made them ill. All too often, people don’t report foodborne illness as they think that they’ve had the stomach flu.

One reason for this is that it’s not well known that some microbes responsible for foodborne illness can take days to make you sick. When you battle a bout of diarrhea and vomiting, if you’re considering foodborne illness, chances are that you’re thinking about what you ate at your last meal.

But in fact, it could have been something you ate even five days before.  The bacteria Campylobacter is one such example. Symptoms can include fever, headache and muscle pain, followed by diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, and Guillain-Barré Syndrome. This syndrome which affects the nervous system, is one of the leading causes of non-trauma-induced paralysis in the world.

It’s pretty scary to think about. A report from the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention is even more worrisome. The researchers studied the five most common foodborne diseases and found that the more common consequences of diarrhea and vomiting typically last only a few days. But in 2 to 3 percent of cases, foodborne disease can cause serious long-term health problems – including arthritis,  kidney failure, paralysis, seizures and  hearing or visual impairments.

Definitely food for thought.

So why do I say that the risk of foodborne illness can soar through the holidays?   Food handling practices play a major role.   Think of how many parties you attend where the food is served buffet style? Buffets can certainly be a great way to feed a crowd but they can also be a problematic.

If you’re partaking, you might want to do a little sleuthing to avoid getting ill.  Here are a few things to take note of:

• If the food is sitting out for extended periods of time, is the hot food being kept hot? Lukewarm dishes are a breeding ground for microbes.

• Keep an eye out for highly perishable foods like raw fish or sushi. Are there large platters of fish-containing rolls just sitting out? That piece of sushi may come back to haunt you another day.  Is there ice keeping the cold foods cold?

• When the food is being replenished, is more being added to the dish that’s already there or is a new one being brought out? If the food is just being added to the platter, skip it.

Many of the same rules apply even if you’re not eating buffet style. For instance, if you’re part of a large holiday party in a restaurant and the food arrives lukewarm, don’t be shy – send it back. Better safe than sorry.

If you’re doing the entertaining, and feeding a crowd over a number of hours, consider setting out  smaller serving dishes and then replacing them. Not only will you decrease the risk of making people sick, when the event is over, you may waste less food. For example, if you’ve made a dip and it’s been sitting out, it’s wise to toss the rest out. But if you’ve only put small amounts out, you can still enjoy the leftovers from the fridge.

Be aware of the potential for cross-contamination. Proper hand washing  can make a difference. But also keep in mind that nowadays it’s not just raw poultry or meat that can be the source of cross contamination.  So can produce.  If you’re cooking in advance for a crowd, don’t let the food cool down before you refrigerate it. As the food cools, it can pass through a temperature range that’s idea for bacterial growth.

For more information on safe food handling practices, visit the website of The Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education.
Have you been a victim of foodborne illness? Do you watch out for potential sources of food poisoning or are you more laid back about the issue?



Tags: , ,

Categories: Food Safety

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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