My husband and I were stricken recently with a food borne illness, or what is more commonly referred to as a bout of food poisoning. A quiet romantic dinner left us sick for several days. We blamed the plate of beef satay, but it could have been anything in the restaurant’s kitchen or even something as innocuous as contaminated bean sprouts. We were lucky. We should have gone to the hospital, but it was such a relief to stop throwing up that we decided to bypass the trip to the Emergency room for some much needed sleep.
Food poisoning can happen any time. Health Canada estimates that about two million Canadians suffer from some form of food borne illness every year, causing about 30 deaths. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) defines food borne illness as when a person consumes food contaminated with pathogenic bacteria, viruses or parasites. Since the symptoms often resemble the flu, food borne illnesses often go unreported. Symptoms can include stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting and fever.
Pathogens can get into food in many ways through improper handling and cleaning, refrigeration, and are transported on insects like flies.
Different agencies in Canada look after our food safety. At the federal level, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency enforces food governing and safety acts at Canada’s borders, inspects packing plants, packaging and labels in grocery stores and develops tests to detect new and existing pathogens in packaged food and in food processing. Provincial inspectors monitor restaurants and other eating establishments. If the provincial inspector suspects that the food, rather than the preparation is the cause of the illness, the case will be referred to the CFIA for further investigation.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency website (http://www.inspection.gc.ca) has information about the government’s role in protecting our food. The web site contains a number of fact sheets with information on food borne illnesses and advises people to protect themselves from contamination through careful selection, preparation and cooking of their food.
Most food borne illnesses can be easily avoided by proper cleaning of the kitchen and utensils and by thoroughly cooking all meat, fish and seafood. Salmonella and botulism are probably the most familiar, but there are other food pathogens that can cause serious illness, and, in some extreme cases, death.
Salmonella bacteria cause a sickness called salmonellosis. The bacteria are found in the natural environment, in animal feed and in the intestines of wild and farm animals. Foods exposed to animal waste may carry the salmonella bacteria.
Symptoms of salmonella include diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, vomiting and fever. The whole body can be affected. The symptoms can occur anywhere from 6-24 hours after exposure and can persist for several days. Foods that most likely carry the salmonella bacteria include: raw eggs, undercooked meats (especially poultry), raw milk, and sprouts. Fruits and vegetables can become contaminated if they come in contact with a contaminated product or surface such as a counter top or unwashed hands.
To avoid the risk of salmonella, the CFIA recommends that people wash hands and clean produce in clean water. Clean and sanitize cooking utensils, cutting boards, and countertops with a mild bleach solution consisting of 1 tsp. bleach to 3 cups of water. Cook all meats and poultry thoroughly. Meat should reach an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit and poultry should reach 180-185 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid using raw eggs in mayonnaise, eggnog and deserts and cook eggs until the yolks are firm. Never use cracked or dirty eggs. Cook stuffing separately from the bird.
C. botulinum is another dangerous food borne pathogen and grows in foods that are not preserved properly. C. botulinum does not make adults sick; the poisons produced by the bacteria are what cause the illness. C. botulinum cannot grow in air.
Symptoms can range from nausea, vomiting, fatigue, headache, double vision, dryness in the throat and throat to respiratory failure. The toxins are nerve poisons that can cause paralysis. The symptoms can appear from 12-36 hours after infection and may last from 2-14 days or longer. The mortality rate in Canada from botulism is approximately 10 per cent.
Botulism can be found in home-canned, low-acid foods like green beans and mushrooms. Honey can also be contaminated with C. botulinum. The CFIA recommends that parents not feed honey to babies less than one year of age. The bacteria cannot grow in honey, but it can grow in the baby’s body. If any signs and symptoms occur, seek medical attention immediately.
To avoid the risk of botulism, never eat food from cans that bulging or are leaking. The food may look all right, but it can be growing the bacteria. When home canning, preserve all low acid foods like vegetables in a pressure canner and follow manufacturer’s directions. Cook all home-canned, low acid foods for at least ten minutes to kill the bacteria. Date and label home canning and follow all accepted canning methods. All utensils, work surfaces and hands must be kept clean during the canning process.
The CFIA website has information about other food pathogens including Listeria monocytogenes and shigella. Everyone can protect themselves by washing hands often during food preparation and by the proper cleaning of utensils and cutting boards. If you are interested in home canned foods, Bernardin has a great guidebook with information on safe home canning, with lots of recipes. Part II of this column includes tips for safe food storage and a look at how our food is kept safe at the national level.
Teresa Neuman is a member of the Board of Directors of Briarpatch Magazine. She lives in Regina with her family and is a member is CUPE.
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