The more you know about food safety, the safer you are

Ground meats

More than four million Canadians get some form of food poisoning annually. Most recover quickly with no lasting complications but sometimes the effects can be serious, even deadly.

Food poisoning is caused by eating food that is contaminated with unsafe microbes, mostly bacteria, but can also be caused by viruses, moulds, parasites and chemicals. Although, Canada has one of the safest food supplies in the world, food recalls and food poisoning outbreaks are often in the news.

In Canada, there are three government offices responsible for ensuring food safety from farm to fork:

  • Health Canada is responsible for developing food safety and nutrition standards and guidelines, evaluating food safety risks and promoting healthy eating.
  • The Canadian Food Inspection Agency sets standards to detect and prevent risks to Canada’s food supply and verifies that industry is meeting federal food safety and regulatory requirements.
  • The Public Health Agency of Canada conducts food-related illness surveillance and outbreak investigations and provides advice to Canadians on how to protect themselves during an outbreak.

These government offices work with the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education, whose role is to educate consumers on safe food handling and preparation.

The following is a list of tips and best practices organized into four simple categories: clean, separate, cook and chill.

Keep it clean

Bacteria are everywhere and while most are not harmful to human health (some are even beneficial), there are those that can make you sick. Illness causing bacteria can survive and thrive on hands, utensils, cutting boards and counter tops. Washing frequently will prevent cross contamination and ensure that bacteria don’t spread.

  • Wash your hands before eating or handling food and after handling raw meat or uncooked eggs. If you stop to pet the cat, take out the garbage, go to the bathroom or blow your nose, wash your hands again. Use soap and lather for at least 20 seconds.
  • Wash countertops, utensils, dishes and cutting boards with hot, soapy water and clean washcloths after preparing food. Change your washcloths frequently and clean them using the hot cycle of your washing machine. Avoid sponges because they are harder to keep bacteria free. Don’t forget to wash the food thermometer too.
  • Wash fruit and vegetables but not eggs or meat. Even if you plan to peel fruits and vegetables, it is important to wash them so that bacteria will not spread from the outside to the inside of the fruit. You don’t need to use soap or fancy produce washes. Simply rinse with running water. For fruits like melons or vegetables like carrots that have rough skins, scrub with a produce brush. It is safer not to wash meats and poultry because this process can easily spread bacteria to your sink and onto countertops.
  • Wash reusable grocery bags frequently, especially if any raw meat, poultry or seafood leaks or an egg breaks.

Separate to prevent cross-contamination

Cross contamination is when bacteria from one food are transferred to another. An example would be juices from raw meats coming in contact with already cooked meat or cutting raw meat on a cutting board and then cutting vegetables on the same cutting board. Tips for preventing cross contamination:

  • Use separate cutting boards, dishes and utensils for produce, raw meat and eggs. If your cutting board is well used with lots of grooves, consider replacing it.
  • Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs separate during shopping. Before bringing them home, wrap them in separate plastic bags in case they leak.
  • In the refrigerator, keep raw meat, poultry and seafood in leak proof containers or wrapped in plastic.
  • Leave eggs in their container and store them in the main part of the refrigerator.
  • When barbecuing, use a clean plate for the cooked meat. Don’t use the same dish that held the raw meat. Also, don’t use marinade from raw meat on cooked meat.

Cook to the right temperature

Bacteria multiply quickly in the danger zone between temperatures of 4 C to 60 C (40 F to 140 F). Cooking food properly is the best way to kill bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria. To avoid the danger zone:

  • Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods.
  • Place food thermometer in the thickest part of the meat. Make sure the thermometer is not touching bone or fat. On a whole chicken or turkey, the best spot to place the food thermometer is into the thigh meat between drumstick and breast. For a burger, slide the food thermometer into the side of the patty rather then through the top.
  • Use the safe internal cooking temperatures chart to find the correct internal temperature for the meat you are cooking.
  • If you are holding food before serving, make sure to keep it at 60 C (140 F). This also applies to transporting food to a potluck or event. Keep it warm using an insulated container.
  • When reheating leftovers, make sure to warm them to 74 C (165 F) and only reheat them once.
  • Consume only pasteurized milk, apple juice and cider. Pasteurization is a process of quickly heating food for a short period to kill bacteria that could potentially make you sick. This also includes milk products like cheese.
  • Some recipes for eggnog, mayonnaise, aioli and salad dressing call for eggs but don’t require any cooking. Use pasteurized egg in these recipes. Raw egg may contain salmonella.

Keep things chill

Just as it is important to keep hot foods hot, it is equally important to keep cold foods cold. Avoid the temperature danger zone because it is where bacteria and food poisoning grows. Remember you can’t tell just by looking or smelling whether food has gone bad or if is full of harmful bacteria. Here are things to remember for keeping foods chilled:

  • Keep perishable food safe in the refrigerator or freezer. Your refrigerator should be set at 4 C (40 F) and your freezer at -18 C (0 F) or lower. Use an appliance thermometer to check the temperature.
  • To ensure proper cold air circulation, don’t overcrowd your refrigerator.
  • Refrigerate food labelled “keep refrigerated.”
  • Once cooked or served, food should be stored in the refrigerator within two hours, preferably sooner. In warmer weather, refrigerate within one hour.
  • If you are transporting perishable food to a potluck supper or picnic, keep cold food below 4 C (40 F) using an insulated container packed with ice or frozen freezer packs. Keep the insulated containers out of the sun. Pack raw meats at the bottom in extra plastic or spill proof containers to avoid raw meat juices dripping.
  • If you are sending perishable food such as leftovers, cheese, deli meats and yogurt in a lunch, use an insulated lunch bag and a freezer pack.
  • Marinate foods in the refrigerator. Marinades may be acidic but not enough to prevent the growth of bacteria if left out at room temperature.
  • Raw meat, poultry and seafood must be cooked within two to three days after purchase. Freeze meats that won’t be cooked right away.
  • Remove the bones from whole poultry and other cooked birds before refrigerating.
  • Consult the best before date on food such as dairy products, eggs and prepared meat before buying or consuming.
  • Use the storage chart to determine safe refrigerator and freezer storage times for other perishable foods. For example, deli meats should be kept in the refrigerator and consumed within two to three days of opening.
  • Refrigerate or freeze leftover food within two hours to minimize bacteria growth. Use refrigerated leftovers within four days.
  • If you are not sure how long something has been in the refrigerator or how long it was left out on the counter after a meal, follow this simple rule: when in doubt throw it out.

How to thaw frozen foods

Never thaw food at room temperature. There are three safe ways to defrost frozen foods:

  • In the refrigerator.
  • In cold water that is changed every 30 minutes.
  • In the microwave. Food thawed in the microwave should be cooked immediately after thawing.

Do not re-freeze thawed food. If you have defrosted meat and then decided not to use it, cook it first and then freeze. The only other option is to cook the food while still frozen or partially frozen.

These clean, separate, cook and chill practices cover the basics of food safety but there are also specific situations that are worth exploring to add to your food safety arsenal.

Food safety is about best practices and minimizing risk. Maybe in the past you have gotten away with thawing your turkey in the sink overnight or reusing old processed cheese jars for canning or eating pizza left out after last night’s party. Here are some additional food safety tips and best practices for shopping, home canning and eating out.

Food safety shopping tips

  • Separate raw meat from your other groceries. Wrap meat in plastic bags to reduce risk of juices leaking onto other groceries.
  • Check produce for bruising. Bruising quickly turns to mould.
  • Never buy or eat food from cans that are dented, bulging or leaking. Dents may seem harmless but they compromise the can, which may mean a break in the seal.
  • Buy cold and frozen foods at the end of shopping to ensure they stay fresh for the trip home. Take your groceries home immediately and put perishable ones in the refrigerator or freezer. If you have to travel a long distance, consider using a cooler with freezer packs or ice to keep food fresh.
  • Label specific reusable grocery bags or bins for meat, poultry and seafood.

Safe home canning

  • Use proper canning jars and new self-sealing lids. It is not recommended to use old lids even if they seem to be in good condition.
  • Follow the proper canning processes when canning food at home. If you are new to canning, consider taking a course to make sure you are doing it correctly.
  • Use up-to-date, tested home canning recipes. Follow the recipe carefully and don’t adjust ingredients, amounts or jar sizes.
  • Consider freezing low acid food like vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood, and spaghetti sauce rather then canning them.
  • Flavoured oils and pesto made with fresh herbs and garlic must be kept refrigerated and used within three days. Oil is not a preservative.

Food safety tips for eating out

In Canada, all restaurants, coffee shops, drive-thrus and food trucks are inspected to make sure that safe food handling practices are followed. However, there are few things to watch for when dining away from home:

  • Choose a restaurant that looks clean.
  • If you order a hot meal, make sure it is served hot.
  • Cold food like pre-packaged sandwiches should be refrigerated and should feel cold when you eat them.
  • Ground meat, hamburger and chicken must be well cooked with no pink meat showing.
  • Ask questions about how certain items are prepared. Is the Caesar salad dressing made with raw eggs? Are the flavoured oils and pesto made fresh or commercially sourced?
  • Beware of food buffets. Are the hot foods hot and the cold foods cold? Does each dish have its own serving utensil? Is food replenished regularly? Is there a guard or cover for each dish? Are the plates and utensils clean?
  • If you are taking food home either after a meal in a doggie bag or as take out, follow the two hour rule. Either eat or refrigerate within two hours. Make sure your waiter or waitress brings you the container to fill from the table after a meal rather then taking it back to the kitchen. This is a better food safety practice then taking half eaten food back into the kitchen.

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10 Common food safety mistakes

  1. Putting cooked meat back onto the plate that held the raw meat.
  2. Using the marinade for the raw meat on the cooked meat.
  3. Thawing or marinating food at room temperature.
  4. Letting food cool before putting it into the refrigerator. Follow the two hour rule.
  5. Eating raw cookie dough or other foods that contain uncooked eggs. Raw egg may contain salmonella.
  6. Undercooking meat, poultry, seafood or eggs.
  7. Not washing your hands.
  8. Washing meat and poultry.
  9. Cross contamination from using the same knife or cutting board to cut meat and vegetables.
  10. Tasting food to see if it is still good.

5 Common Bacteria causes of food poisoning

  1. Campylobacter jujuni can be found in uncooked poultry, unpasteurized milk and milk products and untreated water.
  2. Clostridium botulinum can be found in improperly prepared low acid canned food and improperly prepared flavoured oils. Honey should not be fed to children under the age of one year because it can also contain these bacteria.
  3. E. coli can be found in raw or undercooked meats (especially ground meats), raw vegetables and fruit, unpasteurized apple juice or cider, unpasteurized milk and milk products and untreated water.
  4. Listeria can be found in raw or undercooked meats, raw vegetables, unpasteurized milk and milk products and processed meats.
  5. Salmonella can be found in raw or uncooked meats, poultry, fish and eggs, unpasteurized milk and milk products, raw vegetables and fruit, peanut butter, sauces, salad dressings, eggnog and chocolate.

Dorothy Long is a home economist in the agrifood trade and former greenhouse grower from Lloydminster, Sask. She writes a blog at Contact:

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