Handling Food at Home

Canada's food supply is more abundant, wholesome and safe than it has ever been before. A dedicated team of farmers, government inspectors and food processors ensures that food is safe and of the highest quality. Careful handling of food in the home keeps it safe.

Whether you are an employee in a restaurant, a member of a local catering group or preparing food for your family, the way YOU handle food affects the health of those who eat it.

Food-borne illness is caused by eating food that contains harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi. They are called pathogens and they can be found in the house, on pets, on raw foods, on your hands and in your nasal passages. Some are helpful and give cheese and yogurt their characteristic flavours. Others can cause serious illness. All pathogens need food, warmth, moisture and time to grow and multiply before they can cause an illness. One hundred bacteria can become one million in just 3½ hours at room temperature.


Danger Zone in the Kitchen

The temperature danger zone is between 4°C and 60°C. Bacteria grow best in this temperature range. One bacterium can double every 15 minutes at room temperature and become 4 million bacteria in only 8 hours. At refrigerator temperatures, growth is slower and one bacterium doubles itself in 6-8 hours. Check to be sure that the refrigerator is set at 4°C (40°F). At temperatures over 60°C (140°F) bacteria are killed.

The symptoms of food-borne illness are usually the same as those for the flu: cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, fever and/or headache. Illness can occur 3 hours after eating or up to 2 weeks later. If food-borne illness is suspected, it is important to get in touch with a physician and the public health department. Those at most risk of food-borne illness are the very young, the frail elderly, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems.

Foodborne illness:
What can you do to prevent it?

Personal Hygiene

Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds to loosen germs. Then rinse thoroughly. Be sure to clean around fingernails and creases where microorganisms build up. Dry hands with a dry paper towel or clean cloth towel. Keep towels for drying hands away from those for drying dishes.

Wash your hands with soap!Wash your hands frequently and especially:

  • before starting to prepare food and after preparing food
  • handling raw food, especially meat and poultry
  • using the toilet
  • changing diapers
  • touching dirty items or equipment
  • cleaning equipment
  • handling garbage or handling money

Be careful of jewelry - it may carry bacteria to the food. If a trip to the refrigerator or a telephone call interrupts food preparation, wash your hands before touching those objects and before continuing to handle food. Bacteria can be transferred from your mouth to your hands if you are eating or smoking while preparing food. Always wash your hands after sneezing, blowing your nose or wiping a child's nose.

Don't allow anyone with an infectious disease (flu or cold) or infected cut to work with food. Bacteria causing the infection may be passed to the food. Wear rubber gloves over a cut when cooking. Gloved hands can pick up bacteria too, so wash them or put on a new pair of disposable gloves as often as you would wash your bare hands.

Anyone working with food should have clean hands, fingernails, hair and clothing. Long hair should be tied back so that it doesn't come in contact with food and loose hairs don't fall into the food. Avoid using your hands to mix foods when clean utensils can be used instead.

Keep your hands away from your mouth, nose and hair. Cover coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues. Bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus are often expelled into the air during coughing and sneezing. As these bacteria grow in numbers, they produce a toxin (a poison) that is not destroyed by heating and may cause food-borne illness. Other types of bacteria such as Shigella, E.coli and Campylobacter need only 10, 100 or 500 (respectively) organisms to cause illness.

Pets are not allowed in restaurants and should not be around the food-preparation area in the home. Dogs, cats, birds and especially turtles may contain bacteria that can pass from hands (yours or your children's) to food. Be sure to wash your hands well after handling pets.


  • Always buy pasteurized milk and government inspected meat and poultry. Raw milk continues to be associated with reported cases of human disease.
  • Buy only Canada Grade A eggs with clean, uncracked shells and use within the "Best Before" date. Bacteria can enter an egg through a crack. If an egg becomes cracked, be sure to use it in a dish that will be cooked thoroughly. Purchase only enough eggs for 1 or 2 weeks at a time. Keep eggs in the carton on the refrigerator shelf where it is colder than in the door.
  • Avoid buying dented, rusted or bulging cans. Bacteria can enter the food through the tiniest of holes or cracks.
  • Read expiry dates on food packages and choose those you will use before the dates expire.
  • Beware of refrigerator display cases that are over-packed. It is hard to keep temperatures at 4°C (40°F) or less under these conditions.
  • Never buy foods that normally need to be kept cold, from unrefrigerated counters.
  • Watch for cross-contamination at the meat counter. Is the same slicing machine used to slice cold cuts and raw meat? Is the blade sanitized between slicing raw and processed meats? Is there cross-contamination in the seafood display with raw fish and cooked shrimp near each other on the ice?
  • Shop for meats, poultry, eggs and dairy products so that they are in the temperature danger zone (4ºC - 60ºC) for the shortest time.
  • Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs separated from other foods in your grocery cart to avoid cross-contamination.
  • At checkout, be sure meat and poultry are packed to prevent juice from leaking. Storing Maintain refrigerator temperature at 4°C (40°F) or less to slow the growth of bacteria. Check it with a thermometer.
  • Use a cooler if you have a long drive or won't be going straight home after shopping.
  • Foods that could spoil should not be left in a hot car any longer than it would take ice cream to melt. Pack groceries in the passenger area rather than the hot trunk.
  • Refrigerate perishables and groceries as soon as possible. They should not be kept at room temperature for more than 2 hours. Cold air needs to circulate around the food, so don't over-pack the refrigerator.
  • Maintain refrigerator temperature at 4°C (40°F) or less to slow the growth of bacteria. Check it with a thermometer.
  • The temperature in the freezer should be -18°C (0°F) or colder. Freezing stops the growth of, but does not kill bacteria.
  • Leave raw meat in its store wrapping and place in a bowl or plate on the lowest shelf of the refrigerator. Never let raw eggs or the drippings from raw meat or poultry come into contact with prepared foods or fruits and vegetables that will be eaten raw.
  • Keep fish refrigerated. At room temperature, bacteria on the surface may produce toxins that are not destroyed by heating. These toxins can cause scombroid poisoning, an allergic reaction to histamine, which is produced when raw fish is decomposing.


Thaw foods in the refrigerator. Surface bacteria begin to multiply as soon as the surface of the defrosting food begins to warm. Thawing in the refrigerator prevents this warming and also saves the quality and nutrients. Allow 12 to 15 hours per pound (26-33 hr/kg) of meat or chicken and 5 hours per pound (10 hr/kg) of turkey. Cook within 48 hours of thawing. If it won't be eaten, cook and freeze it. Never refreeze thawed raw meat. Defrost frozen whole poultry in cold water. Allow one hour per pound defrosting time. If using a microwave for thawing, be sure to cook the food right away.

Steaks and roasts can be cooked from the frozen state. Increase cooking time by 50%.


  • Beware of cross-contamination. Prepare raw meat away from other foods. Use clean utensils for each food to be prepared and every time the food is tasted. Never put a utensil back into a food if it has been used to taste the food. Use clean utensils each time you flip, stir or remove cooked food from a skillet. Never put a utensil in cooked food if it was used to stir raw meat or poultry.
    Wash thermometer probes with hot soapy water after each use to prevent cross-contamination from food not done to food that has reached the proper temperature.
  • Use smooth cutting boards of wood or plastic. They should be free of cracks and crevices where bacteria may collect. Discard any boards with cracks or deep gouges in them. Heavy plastic cutting boards are easier to clean as they can be sanitized in the dishwasher. Avoid cutting boards that are soft or porous. All cutting boards should be sanitized after being used for cutting raw meats, fish or poultry. Clean in hot soapy water and rinse in mild bleach solution.
  • Use one cutting board for raw meats and another for ready-to-eat foods. This will help to reduce the chance of cross-contamination from one food to another. Clean cutting boards, meat grinders, blenders and can openers well with hot soapy water and sanitize them with a bleach solution. Hot water alone will not destroy bacteria such as Salmonella. To make a bleach solution, add 5 ml bleach to 750 ml water. Use immediately as bleach loses its effectiveness within 6 hours of mixing.
  • Always use clean dishcloths and clean utensils. Change dishcloths after wiping up raw eggs or meat juices. Use a separate cloth for wiping the floor
  • Keep towels for drying hands away from those for drying dishes. Air drying dishes is more hygienic than drying with a dishtowel
  • For marinated meat, remove 50 ml marinade before adding raw meat or poultry. It can be used to baste meat or can be used as a sauce. Marinate meats in the refrigerator even if the recipe advises to do it at room temperature. Throw out leftover marinade that has been used on raw meat or poultry.
  • Prepare raw, protein foods (e.g. hamburger patties) quickly and refrigerate or cook as soon as possible so they are at room temperature for just a short time.
  • After preparing raw meat or poultry for the oven, discard meat packaging, fat and bones. A quick wipe with a damp cloth will spread the germs around so wash your hands, equipment and the countertop with hot soapy water and then sanitize with a bleach solution.


Never stuff poultry ahead of time. The stuffing for turkey or chicken is a perfect place for bacteria to grow; it is warm, moist and low in acid. If stuffing is made in advance, store it in a separate bowl in the refrigerator. Stuff just before roasting and pack loosely so it cooks thoroughly. The minimum temperature for the stuffing should be 165 degrees Fahrenheit or 74 degrees Celsius.


When making custard sauces, chill them quickly; place containers in ice cold water, stir frequently and then refrigerate. Because raw eggs can contain bacteria, special precautions should be taken when serving eggs to young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with a weakened immune system. They should avoid eating foods with raw eggs (homemade Caesar dressing, raw cookie dough, hollandaise sauce and eggnog).

  • Do not make homemade eggnog for a crowd. The large number of eggs used in the mixture carries a higher risk of contamination with Salmonella bacteria. Use commercial eggnog (that has been pasteurized) or pasteurized raw eggs and keep it refrigerated.
  • Do not use home canned foods for community catered events.
  • Make sandwiches with meat, poultry or eggs quickly and carefully. Refrigerate as soon as possible.
  • Homemade vegetable and herb mixtures stored in oil, must be made with fresh ingredients, refrigerated and used within one week.
  • Because sprouts have been linked to cases of food-borne illness, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency recommends proper cooking of sprouts to kill any harmful bacteria that may be present on the raw sprouts.
  • Putting foods in an automatic oven prior to cooking is not safe if the food will be in the danger zone for more than 2 to 3 hours. A frozen roast is safe to leave because it is dense and takes a long time to thaw. A tuna casserole would thaw quickly and be in the danger zone for too long.

Fruits and Vegetables

  • Wash fruits and vegetables with running water, rubbing gently to remove dirt and germs that live in the soil and may be transferred to plants. Do not use detergent because fruits and vegetables can absorb it.
  • Before rinsing leafy vegetables such as lettuce and cabbage, remove and discard the outer leaves.
  • Don't put washed produce back in the original bag unless it too has been washed.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables even if the skin or rind will not be eaten. A knife can spread bacteria from the outside to the inside during cutting. Store cut-up produce in the refrigerator and do not allow it to sit at room temperature for longer than 4 hours, including preparation time.
  • Cover food prior to serving to prevent contamination from dust or flies. Accidental splashing during preparation of other foods can introduce bacteria.


  • Normal oven roasting temperatures for most meat and poultry is 160°C (325°F). It is important not to roast any meat lower than 121°C (250 °F) for meats and 160°C (325°F) for poultry. Lower oven temperatures will not be able to kill food poisoning organisms. Some oven temperature control knobs can be out by 25 degrees. Use a metal stem probe thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat. Cook whole cuts of meat to the following internal temperatures:
    • beef, veal, and lamb 63-77°C (145-170°F)
    • pork 71°C (160°F)
    • chicken pieces 77°C (170°F)
    • whole chicken 82°C (180°F) in the breast
    • stuffing in a separate container 74°C (165°F)
    • whole turkey (without stuffing) 77°C (170°F) in inner thigh
    • whole turkey stuffed 82°C (180°F) in inner thigh
  • Cook all ground beef and pork to a temperature of at least 71°C (160°F) and ground poultry to 80°C (175°F). Cook ground meat and poultry until the meat is no longer pink AND the juices show no pink colour.
  • Steaks and roasts of beef, veal, and lamb may be cooked to an internal temperature of 60°C (140°F) - rare; 71°C (160°F) - medium; 77°C (170°F) - well done, as long as they are well cooked on the outside and have not been pierced or cut. Piercing to tenderize or deboning could carry bacteria from the uncooked surface to the interior. If this has occurred, the interior of the meat must be thoroughly cooked as well.
  • Calibrate thermometers according to manufacturer's instructions. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the food and in the case of meat, away from fat, gristle, and bone. Wash and sanitize the stem of the thermometer after every use.
  • When cooking, never put cooked meat on an unwashed plate or platter on which you carried the raw meat.
  • Do not partially roast poultry on one day and finish cooking it the next. It is unlikely that any bacteria in the centre of the bird would be destroyed by heat. In fact, the bacteria may be in the danger zone and could grow quickly to large numbers.
  • When cooking for a crowd, it is easier and safer to cook several small roasts than a large one. They will be easier to lift, cook, carve and chill.
  • Foods such as gravy, spaghetti sauce, chili, lasagna and stew take a long time to become piping hot in the centre and are also difficult to chill quickly. Make several small pans rather than one large casserole. It is easier to heat them to piping hot and to chill them as well. Try to keep the depth of the food to less than 10 cm (4 inches). Use the thermometer to ensure that the centre of the food reaches 74°C (165°F). Eat cooked foods as soon as they come off the heat.
  • When catering to a large group, keep time between cooking and serving food to a minimum. Keep hot food hot and cold food cold.


Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours of preparation in small, covered, shallow containers to speed cooling. Large pots of chili and soup can take hours or days to chill properly. Zipper type plastic bags allow food to cool quickly because they allow a large, flat surface exposed to refrigerated air. Leave space between containers to allow cooling air to circulate. Leftovers should be eaten within 4 days. Reheat to at least 74°C (165°F). Heat soups and gravies to a rolling boil. If leftovers are uneaten after being reheated, discard them.

Barbecue Safety

  • Keep barbecue grill clean and always preheat to destroy any bacteria that may be on the grill.
  • Never use the same basting brush with raw and cooked meats. If using barbecue sauce or oil for basting, put into small bowls. Do not serve sauces in which you have dipped basting brushes used for raw or partly cooked chicken or meat. Discard leftover basting oil or sauce. Clean basting brushes in hot soapy water and rinse in the bleach solution.
  • When barbecuing, NEVER put cooked meat on the same dish on which you carried the raw meat or utensils without washing it first.

Microwave Safety

  • Wash and sanitize the inside of the microwave oven to reduce cross-contamination.
  • Cover foods during cooking, if possible. The steam will help heat the food evenly. Leave a small space for excess steam to escape. Use a microwave safe lid or waxed paper. Plastic wrap should not be allowed to touch food as it is being heated. Allow a standing time after the microwave has shut off to complete cooking. Microwave cooking creates pockets of heat that need time to spread throughout the rest of the food. Debone large pieces of meat and cook at 50% power to promote even heating.
  • Do not cook whole stuffed poultry in the microwave. It is too large and dense to be heated evenly to a safe temperature.
  • Cook foods and reheat leftovers in the microwave to the same temperatures you would when using conventional cooking methods. Use a thermometer to check the temperature in several spots to make sure that even heating has occurred.
  • Remove packaging before defrosting food in the microwave. Defrost food no longer than 2 hours in the microwave and then cook immediately.

Lunches on the Go

  • Prepare lunches with the same care and cleanliness as all meals. Try to avoid lunches with chicken, egg, seafood or meats unless refrigeration is available. Peanut butter or cheese sandwiches can be kept safely without refrigeration for a few hours.
  • Sandwiches can be made ahead of time and chilled or frozen before being added to the lunch pack. Use an insulated lunch bag or double pack in paper or plastic. A frozen juice box or freezer pack will help keep food cold. Perishable leftovers from lunches should be discarded.

Preventing food poisoning is everyone's responsibility.
Take time to form healthy habits in all aspects of food handling.
It is a good lesson for all members of the family.

For more information, contact your MAFRD GO Office.