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Food safety at home

If food isn’t handled, prepared or stored properly, it can become spoiled with germs, yet still taste and smell okay.

These germs can cause stomach-aches, diarrhea, vomiting, or fever. Some germs can cause more serious problems such as kidney failure, blood infection, or even paralysis. Babies and young children, older adults, and people with weak immune systems are most at risk of problems if they eat food that is spoiled.

How do germs get into food?

Canada's food supply is one of the safest in the world. Still, infections related to food do happen. Here’s how:

  • Food from animal sources (such as meat, chicken) can contain germs coming from these animals.
  • Vegetables and fruits can pick up germs from the soil or during harvesting.
  • Germs can get onto food while it is handled, processed, stored, and/or transported.

Usually, foods don’t have enough germs to make you sick. Common exceptions are raw meats, eggs, and unpasteurized dairy products. Pasteurized foods have been through a process that kills germs without making the food less nutritious.

At home, germs that may be on your food can grow to high levels if the food is not stored, handled and cooked properly. Most germs grow very slowly in the refrigerator, but grow faster at room temperature (for example, when you leave meat out on the counter).

Health Canada will issue a warning when a food item is making people sick. You can also learn about warnings from the radio, television, the Internet and newspapers.

Should I buy organic food?

Food labeled “organic” is not less likely to have germs than non-organic food. You should use the same care in handling and storing food even if it is labeled “organic”.

How can I keep my family safe? (see Table 1)

  • Choose safe foods for your child.
    • Avoid unpasteurized milk and cheese products and fruit or vegetable juices, unless they were prepared from washed, fresh fruit or vegetables just before serving. The label will say if the milk and juices that you buy are pasteurized.
    • Thoroughly rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water, especially if they are to be served uncooked. Lettuce, spinach and other salad greens need particular attention. 
    • Children should avoid eating raw or undercooked alfalfa, mung bean or other sprouts, because the seeds used for sprouting may have germs.
    • Children younger than one year of age should not eat honey. It may contain a germ that causes infant botulism, a type of paralysis in infants, but not in older children and adults.
  • Separate raw foods from cooked foods.
    • Store meat, poultry, fish or seafood in leak-proof containers in the fridge, so that juices don’t spill onto other foods.  
    • Keep raw meats, poultry, fish and seafood away from cooked food, fresh fruits and vegetables. Wash hands, utensils, chopping boards and work surfaces carefully after handling raw meats, and before using the same items to prepare raw vegetables, salads, sandwiches or other food.
    • When barbecuing, do not place cooked meats back on the plate that held raw meats.
  • Wash your hands.
    • Wash your hands carefully with soap and water before you prepare or handle food. Also wash hands after handling raw meat, poultry or seafood.
    • If you have to stop for any reason while you are preparing food – especially to use the toilet, change a diaper or touch a pet—wash your hands before returning to the food.
  • Cook all meats – including hot dogs and sausages – poultry, seafood and eggs thoroughly.
    • Raw meat is often contaminated with harmful germs. Cooking meat until it is steaming hot will destroy any dangerous germs.
    • It is very important to cook ground beef and other meat patties all the way through. The meat should be brown at the center, not pink or red. The juices should be clear or brown. Undercooked ground meat can cause “hamburger disease,” a serious infection that can cause damage to the intestines and the kidneys.
    • Pay special attention when barbecuing, as meat may appear well done from the outside but remain undercooked inside. 
    • Chicken should be well cooked, not pink or red and not raw near the bones. Undercooked chicken and eggs can cause a serious form of diarrhea.
    • Undercooked pork can result in bacterial or parasitic diseases.  
  • Eat foods soon after they are cooked.
    • Keep hot foods hot, at 60°C (140°F) or above.
    • Keep cold foods cold, at 4°C (40°F) or below.
    • Don’t let foods cool to room temperature. If serving later, refrigerate right away.
  • Store cooked foods appropriately.
    • Keep foods cooked in advance stored at more than 60°C (140°F) or rapidly cooled and stored at less than 4°C (40°F) to avoid growth of any germs that may have remained.
    • Store leftovers right away in the fridge or freezer.
    • Eat cream-filled pastries and potato, egg or other salads with creamy dressings immediately after they are made or come out of the fridge, and store leftovers promptly in the fridge.
    • Make sure your fridge is set at a temperature of 4°C (40°F) or less.
  • Reheat cooked foods adequately.
    • When serving heated leftovers, reheat the food all the way through.
  • Keep your kitchen clean. 
    • Clean all dishes, utensils, cutting boards, and counters that are in contact with food before and after each use. Use hot water.
  • Protect your food.
    • Insects, rodents and other animals including pets can carry germs. Store nonperishable foods (foods that don’t need to be refrigerated) in closed containers in a safe place.
  • Use safe water.
    • Always use safe water when preparing food. If in doubt about water quality, boil it.

Table 1
Food infections and how to avoid them    

Food Examples of possible infections Recommendation
Unpasteurized milk, cheese and other dairy products Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Tuberculosis Children should not drink unpasteurized milk or eat unpasteurized soft cheeses (like Brie, Camembert, and blue-veined cheeses).
Unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juices E. coli, Salmonella, botulism Children should drink only pasteurized juice products unless the fruit or vegetable is washed and the juice freshly squeezed immediately before it is served
Eggs Salmonella Children should not eat raw or under-cooked eggs, unpasteurized powdered eggs or uncooked products containing raw eggs
Raw or undercooked meat, poultry Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria Children should not eat raw or undercooked meat, poultry or meat products (including raw hot dogs)
Raw fish and shell fish Viruses causing diarrhea, hepatitis, parasites Children should not eat raw shellfish. Some experts caution against eating any raw fish
Fresh fruits and vegetables E. coli, viruses causing diarrhea, parasites, hepatitis All fruits and vegetables should be washed before they are eaten. Lettuce, spinach and other salad greens need careful attention.
Sprouts (alfalfa, mung bean) Salmonella, E. coli hepatitis Children should avoid eating raw or undercooked alfalfa, mung bean or other sprouts. Seeds sold for sprouting may contain germs
Honey Botulism Children younger than one year of age should not eat honey.
Cream-filled pastry; potato, egg or other salad with creamy dressing Staphylococcal food poisoning These items should be eaten immediately after preparation or stored promptly in the refrigerator

Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
Infectious Diseases and Immunization Committee

Last Updated: October 2014