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Illness prevention and treatment

August 07, 2018

How to protect yourself from salmonella

Cheesy crackers and chicken nuggets are among the foods recalled lately due to contamination fears. Here’s how you can avoid food-borne illnesses.

Salmonella infections linked to frozen breaded chicken products began to creep up last year across Canada when a national brand of chicken nuggets tested positive for salmonella enteritditis. Since then, we’ve seen a steady flow of recall notices for various brands of packaged frozen chicken in the form of nuggets, burgers and strips.

Does this mean it’s time to chicken out? No, but it doesn’t hurt to be cautious and watch for recall notices. And poultry products aren’t the only food items at risk. In recent months, snack crackers, rice and romaine lettuce have also been recalled in several provinces.

Every year, food-borne illnesses like salmonella, norovirus and listeria hit about four million Canadians, and the number of nationwide food recalls is growing steadily. Why? One possible reason is that many of us don’t know enough about food safety in order to avoid food poisoning, according to research conducted for Health Canada.

So, how can you avoid getting salmonella and other food-borne illnesses? To understand the precautions to take, it helps to know what causes salmonella and how it contaminates your food.

How your food can be contaminated

Also known as salmonellosis, salmonella is a bacterial infection that can cause nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps and fever. (These symptoms are sometimes wrongly called “stomach flu,” when they’re really signs of food poisoning.) The salmonella bacteria lives in the intestines of animals, particularly in birds. Humans can get it by consuming contaminated food.

According to Dr. Bryna Warshawsky, Public Health Ontario’s Medical Director, Communicable Diseases, a number of foods can be contaminated with salmonella, including animal products such as poultry, eggs and meats as well as produce.

People are more likely to catch salmonella if the foods they consume are prepared under these conditions:

  • it isn’t cooked thoroughly or at a safe cooking temperature
  • it isn’t stored, defrosted or cleaned properly
  • it’s prepared by people who haven’t washed their hands
  • it’s prepared on the same surface as other salmonella-infected foods

Tips for salmonella prevention

There’s a reason we’re taught to always wash our hands. Doctors and health experts like Warshawsky highly advise practising proper, consistent hand hygiene to reduce the risk of catching and spreading infections.

For salmonella prevention, Warshawsky urges people to get in the habit of washing their hands with soap and water before and after handling food, especially raw meat and poultry. They should also remember to clean their hands after touching garbage bins, dirty surfaces, pets and animal waste.

Certain animals, like reptiles and amphibians, can also carry salmonella on their skins. “You should keep those types of animals away from those who are more at risk of complications,” Warshawsky says, referring to children under the age of five, the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions.

It also helps to keep your kitchen or food-prep area clean. Wash your cutting boards, countertops, knives and other utensils with soap and hot water after handling raw meat and poultry to prevent any cross-contamination.

Cross-contamination occurs when juice or drippings from raw animal products touches other surfaces or foods. That’s why Warshawsky recommends bagging meat and produce separately when grocery shopping. Cooking meat and poultry properly destroys harmful bacteria; since many fruits and vegetables are eaten raw, you need to keep uncooked meat away from produce.

She further advises people to be cautious of cross-contamination while thawing frozen meat. A common mistake people make is to let food sit in the sink or defrost at room temperature. This allows bacteria to grow and increases your chances of getting food poisoning. “The best way to thaw meat or poultry is to put it in a leak-proof container and place it in the bottom of the fridge,” says Warshawsky. “That way, if any juices leak out as the meat thaws, they won’t touch and contaminate other food items.”

Cook meat at correct temperatures

Your cooking habits also play a role in prevention. All meat, poultry and seafood products must be cooked thoroughly and at the correct temperature to kill off bacteria. Failure to cook packaged goods properly can lead to food poisoning.

 “When it comes to things like frozen, processed chicken products, people think they’re all pre-cooked and microwavable because of their brownish appearance. But they’re still raw and require thorough cooking,” Warshawsky says. “A lot of the instructions on these types of foods even say ‘do not microwave,’ because they require a much longer cooking time in a conventional oven.”

For packaged goods, it’s essential to read and follow cooking instructions carefully. For fresh meat, chicken and fish, however, Warshawsky recommends becoming acquainted with Health Canada’s list of safe internal cooking temperatures. Use a meat thermometer to be sure that the internal temperature has reached the recommended level. Position the probe in the thickest part of the food, avoiding bone, fat and gristle.

Salmonella can be contagious. If you think you have it or any other illness that produces diarrhea, avoid preparing food until you’ve fully recovered. “Salmonellosis usually lasts between four to seven days and mostly goes away on its own,” Warshawsky explains. “But if the bacteria ends up in the blood or joints, it can create complications.” Be sure to seek medical attention if your symptoms are severe or you don’t recover in a few days.

Get updates on food safety recalls

On a more obvious note: Avoid eating recalled items by keeping current on the latest outbreaks and health investigations. Visit or bookmark the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for an up-to-date list of food recall warnings that affect your province or territory.

What if you’re an avid traveller? You can stay safe and informed with an app such as HealthMap’s Outbreaks Near Me. True to its name, this free app offers real-time alerts and info on outbreaks anywhere in the world.  

Looking for an update on a particular health investigation? The Public Health Agency of Canada issues public health notices that include detailed information on the latest epidemics. Be sure to get in touch with your local health authority to report suspected food poisoning from a product, restaurant, grocery store or any another establishment. They can investigate further and request a recall or notice to alert the public and prevent more people from getting sick.

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