The art of safe dining

More Canadians are dining out. Statistics Canada says of every $100 spent on food, a little more than a third is spent on meals outside home, mostly in restaurants. People who live alone, those in higher-income households, and people without children are most likely to eat out, according to data from Statistics Canada’s 1996 Food Expenditure.

But this boom in food services has not been matched by a similar growth in food safety control. A report prepared by public health supervisors in Ontario says nationally:

  • There are two million cases of people made sick by contaminated food.
  • Up to one billion dollars is spent on medical support, lost income and associated expenses.

Considering these costs, food safety is worthy of everyone’s attention. How safe is food eaten outside the home? For the most part, restaurants in Canada are not required to post health inspection reports.

Tim Sly, a professor of environmental health at Ryerson Polytechnic University, in Toronto, says that requiring restaurants to post their health inspection reports may make them try harder for a better grade.

“People don’t want to display a B or a, they want an A,” he says. Getting an A means, among other things, showing an awareness of microbes and how they spread.

Check for these clues
But Sly says even without the reports, there are other clues for a patron. When you go to a restaurant, take a look around.

  • “The fact that the basement shelves aren’t painted, or that there’s dirt or grime… those things suggest they’re cutting corners. And if they’re cutting corners on those things, they’re probably cutting corners in the kitchen as well,” says Sly.

Nancy Donnely is the president of the U.S. advocacy group Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), formed after the E. coli outbreak at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants. She says:

  • When dining out, make sure hot food is hot, and cold food is cold. “If it’s not, send it back.”
  • And, she urges, insist on an entirely new meal. Don’t allow your server to simply zap your chicken in the microwave and put it back on the same bun or plate. “Otherwise, you’ve done nothing to solve the problem.”
  • At lunch counters, don’t let the cook cut a piece of a lukewarm casserole and put it in the microwave. You have no way of knowing how long it’s been sitting there, and the microwave doesn’t always heat thoroughly or evenly enough to kill microbes.
  • Last tip: Beware of buffets and street vendors – especially during the summer.

Dangers are different now
Remember that because of changing farming and processing practices, as well as mutating organisms, the dangers are different than they may have been 50 years ago. So old methods of handling food, even ones you’ve practised for years at home, may not cut it anymore.

As farming, processing and eating habits change, the University of Guelph’s Doug Powell says everybody needs to be aware of food safety. He also believes consumers should demand accountability right along the food chain: “Everyone has a responsibility, from the farm right through to the kitchen. It comes down to awareness about micro-organisms period. Be aware and at the same time, enjoy your food.”

Food poisoning: When to seek help
Symptoms of food poisoning can appear anywhere from a few hours to two weeks after eating contaminated food. In the case of bacteria, they may take that long to multiply to an illness-causing level.

Symptoms are common enough: headache, diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, nausea, vomiting. Victims may assume they’re coming down with stomach flu but, as Dr. David Patrick says, in most cases the distinction won’t matter.

Dr. Patrick, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, says in most cases, the best thing to do is rest and keep drinking fluids. Antibiotics he says, won’t usually shorten the course of food poisoning, or gastroenteritis.

More complicated cases
However, you should seek medical help if:

  • There’s blood in the stool;
  • You cannot keep fluids down;
  • There’s persistent diarrhea or vomiting lasting more than three days.

If bloody stool or diarrhea is accompanied by a high fever, go straight to the hospital. Complicated cases may require antibiotics or more aggressive treatment.

Protect  yourself
If you want to reduce your chances of getting sick, it’s important to be aware of food safety at all stages: shopping, preparing, cooking, eating, and storing. 

  • When shopping, buy perishables last.
  • Store meat in separate bags and take a cooler to store cold foods.
  • Bacteria grow best in temperatures between 4 C and 60 C. Foods that are cooked or meant to be refrigerated, should not remain at this temperature for more than two hours.
  • Never handle raw and cooked meats together.
  • Buy a meat thermometer. Cook red meat to a minimum of 70 C (160 F) throughout. Cook poultry to a minimum of 82 C (180 F) throughout.
  • Children, pregnant women, people over 65, and those with suppressed immune systems should avoid some foods altogether, including raw eggs, sprouts, soft cheeses and unpasteurized juices, Caesar salad, chocolate mousse, some custards, as well as homemade ice cream and mayonnaise.