How safe is your family’s food?

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Rick Holley, a food safety expert at the University of Manitoba, was worried about the safety of frozen, uncooked chicken nuggets; after all, his four grandsons liked to zap them in the microwave for an after-school snack. Holley spent three years testing every brand he could find in Winnipeg grocery stores, with shocking results. “One in four nuggets we sampled was contaminated with salmonella,” he says.

Salmonella is just one of numerous types of bacteria to blame for an estimated 11 to 13 million episodes of food-related illness that hit Canadians each year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Young children and pregnant women are among those most susceptible to symptoms of food-borne illness, which can range from diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps that last a few days to extreme dehydration, permanent kidney disease or death.

Food scares jumped into the headlines last summer, when at least 20 Canadians died from eating deli meats contaminated by the listeria bacterium, and more than 400 food products were recalled. It was only the highest-profile incident of several over the past year. A couple of other examples: President’s Choice Organics Pear Juice from Concentrate for Toddlers was recalled due to possible arsenic contamination; ground beef contaminated with E. coli was pulled from M&M stores across Canada, Costco and upscale Whole Foods Market.

Outbreaks are scary and newsworthy. But your kids are much more likely to be affected by an isolated case of food-borne illness. “For every case that’s reported, there are 300 that go unreported,” says Eleni Galanis, a physician epidemiologist with the BC Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver.

Finger-food folly

Holley’s investigation of chicken nuggets illustrates why food safety problems in Canada go deeper than periodic outbreaks. He advises that consumers can avoid the salmonella in so many chicken nuggets by cooking their kids’ favourite finger food to an internal temperature of 71°C (160°F). But many mistakenly believe that these partly cooked nuggets — crispy golden brown on the outside and raw inside — are fully cooked and only need reheating. A 2004 study by the BC Centre for Disease Control found that nearly 30 percent of consumers regularly used the microwave to heat raw, frozen nuggets, risking salmonella poisoning.

Food illness is often preventable. The nuggets tale isn’t meant to suggest that parents alone are responsible for food safety. In response to the study and illnesses connected to food like nuggets, Health Canada now requires food packagers to label their products with a warning about the risks of microwaving raw products that have a cooked appearance. Certainly poultry producers and processors could do more to make frozen nuggets safe to eat. For instance, Holley tested feed pellets given to broiler chickens and found that five percent of the feed was contaminated with salmonella.

Farmers, food processors, distributors, grocery stores, government regulators and consumers all have important roles to play in ensuring that food is safe to eat.

In Canada, federal, provincial and local agencies are involved in regulating food safety. “The listeria outbreak shows that there’s a substantial need for various parties at the federal, provincial and municipal levels to work seamlessly together to share information captured in an investigation of food-borne illness,” says Holley. In mid-December, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency released its new listeria policy paper, with new, more stringent regulations.

Canada should be proactive in assessing, detecting and managing food health risks, says Holley. He’d like to see a national surveillance system, like the US program called FoodNet, which tracks the health of 15 percent of the population, collecting data to learn what foods are making people sick each year. As a result, US consumers were warned that iceberg lettuce and spinach had become high-risk foods, often contaminated with E. coli and salmonella.

Kids at risk

Parents also need to do their own risk assessments. Bacteria of special concern for children are salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli O157:H7 (the nasty strain notorious for hamburger disease, and contaminated water in Walkerton, Ont.). “The highest risks are for children under the age of five,” because of their still-developing immune systems, says Dorothy Moore, a paediatric infectious disease specialist at Montreal Children’s Hospital.

• Salmonella is most often found in undercooked chicken, causing symptoms ranging from mild diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever to severe dehydration. If a child shows signs of dehydration, listlessness and lethargy, seek medical attention immediately.

• Campylobacter infection occurs frequently, mainly from eating undercooked poultry and meats, and may cause fever, muscle pain, diarrhea and nausea.

• E. coli 0157:H7 may cause severe abdominal cramps, vomiting, fever and kidney failure. It’s found in undercooked hamburger and poultry, raw fruits and vegetables, unpasteurized milk and raw milk cheeses.

• Listeria infection is 20 times more likely in pregnant women than in other healthy adults. Foods to avoid include hot dogs, deli meats, soft cheeses, unpasteurized dairy and undercooked meat, poultry and fish.

How to keep your kids safe

Gaps in the food safety system in Canada make it especially important for parents to follow safe practices in choosing, storing and preparing foods. Fortunately, there are practical steps you can take to dramatically reduce your family’s risk.

At the grocery store

• Avoid high-risk foods: alfalfa sprouts, unpasteurized milk and juices, raw fish and shellfish and soft cheeses such as feta and brie. If you’re concerned, avoid prepackaged deli meats or reheat until piping hot before serving.
• Check for cleanliness and safe food-handling practices. At the deli counter, do staff use separate tongs or gloves for raw and ready-to-eat foods? Are containers of cut-up fruit, such as melon slices, adequately chilled?
• Avoid damaged packaging such as dented or swollen cans and leaking containers. Don’t buy cracked eggs or bruised fruit.
• Check best before dates on perishable food.
• Bag meat and fish separately from other groceries.
• Pick up frozen or chilled foods last, and get them home quickly. Same goes for hot foods. For trips longer than an hour, bring a cooler or insulated bag.

In the fridge

• Keep your fridge temperature set at 4°C (39°F) or below, and your freezer at -18°C (0°F). Bacteria in food can double every 20 minutes at room temperature, so put groceries away promptly, and keep perishable and prepared foods out of the danger zone — that’s between 4°C and 60°C (39° to 140°F).
• Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other foods in your refrigerator. Keep them well wrapped and on lower shelves so juice doesn’t drip onto other foods.
• Chill and store leftovers within two hours of a meal.
• Don’t cram the fridge; cold air needs to circulate.
• Thaw frozen poultry or meat in the refrigerator or under cold running water — never at room temperature.
• Use freezer packs to keep kids’ lunches cool.

At the counter

• Make sure everyone washes hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before preparing food, after handling raw foods, after touching pets and before eating. Keep kitchen countertops and other working surfaces meticulously clean.
• Keep raw foods separate from cooked foods in the prep area. Wash cutting boards, utensils and surfaces used to prepare raw foods (including fruit and vegetables) with soap and warm water before using them to handle cooked foods.
• Be sure to rinse all fresh vegetables and fruit under clean, running water. Use a brush to scrub produce that has firm or rough surfaces, such as cantaloupe and carrots. Cut away bruises and discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables.

At the stove

• Use a food thermometer to make sure meat and poultry reach an internal temperature of at least 82°C (180°F) when cooking. This will kill any bacteria.
• Avoid using a microwave to cook raw meat or poultry, whether frozen or thawed. Microwaving can leave cold spots where pockets of dangerous bacteria survive.
• Cook eggs until the yolks are firm.
• Keep hot foods hot — over 60°C (140°F) — until serving, so harmful germs don’t have time to grow.
• Reheat leftovers thoroughly to protect against microbes that may have multiplied during storage.

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