In 2012 a tainted meat scandal led many Canadians to question food safety. Natural antibacterials and plant extracts can protect us against food poisoning.
With last fall’s outbreak of food poisoning from meat processed at XL Foods in Alberta, the issue of food safety is, again, top of mind. Canadians experience about 11 million cases of food-borne illness every year—a staggering number in a country whose population is just 34.5 million.
The world’s food
Food product recalls have become the norm, and it’s no wonder: with our taste for the world’s bounty of fresh foods, we constantly expose ourselves to new food risks. A tiny oversight on a tomato farm in Mexico can sicken countless people a world away.
From another perspective, centralized meat and poultry farming sees thousands of animals housed together, amplifying the opportunity for infections to spread. Making matters worse, antibiotics used to treat feed animals have created antibiotic-resistant strains of certain bacteria, including Salmonella.
A world of bugs
There are over 200 chemical, microbial, and physical agents linked to food-borne illness, and because pathogenic bacteria are potentially found on everything we eat, everyone is at risk of contamination.
People at greater risk
Some people are more susceptible and may experience more severe illness, including young children, adults over age 60, pregnant women, and people with underlying medical conditions that weaken the immune system.
Symptoms of food poisoning
While diagnosis of true food poisoning can be difficult, symptoms range from mild gastrointestinal upset to nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. In some cases, food poisoning can lead to nervous system problems, kidney failure, anemia, and death. Luckily, you can protect yourself.
Fight bacteria with bacteria
Several studies show the benefits of beneficial live micro-organisms or probiotics in the prevention and control of food-borne infections, particularly Gram-positive bacteria E. coli serotype O157:H7, the pathogen involved in the XL Foods recall.
In one study the antibacterial activity of probiotics against E. coli O157:H7 increased when coupled with the amino acid N-acetylcysteine (NAC). Probiotics are commonly found in fermented foods, including yogourt and sauerkraut, as well as in dietary supplements.
Because of their preventive properties, consider including probiotics in your daily supplement routine.
Honey (both pasteurized and raw) is another food that protects us against food-borne pathogens, as it has a similar antibacterial activity against organisms to that of antibiotic medications.
Offering protection in a different way, fish oil can boost immune function in the gut through modulation of prostaglandin formation.
Likewise, lauric acid from coconut oil can also inhibit the growth of pathogenic microbes; add it to your morning smoothie or enjoy it straight from the spoon.
For liquid protection, polyphenol extract epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) from green tea helps protect against antibiotic-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus.
An important exception was discovered during the XL Foods outbreak last fall: in mechanically tenderized meat, E. coli risk is heightened because the pathogen can be driven into the centre of the meat during the tenderizing process. The federal government is looking into the issue and may require labelling to warn consumers tenderized meat must be cooked more thoroughly.
It’s important to remember that bacteria live on the surface of meats and produce—not throughout (except for ground meat, of course)—so washing is a crucial safety step.
Fortunately, washing doesn’t have to be a complex process: several studies show no benefit of using detergents (peroxyacetic acid or chlorine) over simply using water for inactivating E. coli. Of course, washing ground beef is not practical. Cooking to an internal temperature of at least 160 F (71 C) will ensure any pathogens are destroyed.
Buy local and organic where possible
To minimize risk of well-travelled pathogens, create a menu focused on local foods grown in season. Eating organic meats may reduce your exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Natural plant extracts prevent food-borne infections
Edible natural plant compounds, including extracts, spices, and essential oils, are being studied for their role in preventing food-borne infections. Incorporate these plant compounds into your food washing and food preparation routines.
One study showed that applying 5 percent olive or apple skin extracts to beef reduced E. coli O157:H7 populations to below detection levels.
- Guava and neem extracts provide antimicrobial activity.
- A number of essential oil components have been identified as effective antibacterials, including
- carvacrol (oregano)
- thymol (thyme)
- eugenol (clove)
- perillaldehyde (perilla)
- cinnamaldehyde, cinnamic acid (cinnamon)
- lemon grass
Canada’s top 10 unwanted pathogens
- Campylobacter jejuni
- Clostridium botulinum
- E. coli O157:H7 (involved in the XL Foods beef products recall)
- Listeria monocytogenesSalmonella
- hepatitis A
Did you know?
Biofilms containing E. coli O157:H7 are more likely to be washed off intact lettuce leaves than damaged leaves.
When to seek medical attention
- blood or pus in stools
- diarrhea and are unable to drink fluids due to nausea or vomiting
- diarrhea and a fever above 101 F/38.5 C (above 100.4 F/38 C in child)
- recently travelled to a foreign country and developed diarrhea
- diarrhea that has not improved in 5 days (2 days for an infant or child)
- vomiting in newborn—immediately; in a child—if it persists over 12 hours
- you suspect food poisoning from mushrooms, fish, or botulism
5 steps to food safety
1. Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often.
- Wash hands before, during, and after food preparation, especially after touching raw fish, meat, or poultry. Also wash hands after using the bathroom. Use soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds.
- For cutting boards and utensils, use hot, soapy water for cleanup. Rather than using a sponge, use disposable paper towels to clean countertops after food preparation.
- Wash all fruits and vegetables well before eating. Consider using antibacterial washes made with edible essential oils.
2. Separate: Avoid cross-contamination.
- Use different cutting boards and knives for raw meats and vegetables. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
3. Cook: Use a food thermometer to cook to safe temperatures (see chart below).
- If you’re cooking beef, the most important first step is to determine if it has been mechanically tenderized. If it has, or if you’re not sure, cook to an internal temperature of at least 160 F (71 C).
- To check for doneness, insert a meat thermometer into the thickest part of food, away from bone, fat, and gristle.
4. Chill: Refrigerate promptly.
- Hot food does not have to be cooled before placing it in the refrigerator: if food remains at room temperature for two hours or longer, bacteria begin to multiply.
- After shopping, refrigerate frozen food as soon as possible. If food becomes thawed, use it immediately and do not refreeze it.
- Defrost meats and poultry in the refrigerator. Never buy or eat food from bulging, dented, or rusted cans.
5. If in doubt, throw it out.
Although contaminated food may not smell or look bad, don’t taste suspicious foods.
|Beef, veal, and lamb (pieces/whole cuts)—medium-rare||145 F (63 C)|
|Beef, veal, and lamb (pieces/whole cuts)—medium||160 F (71 C)|
|Beef, veal, and lamb (pieces/whole cuts)—well done||170 F (77 C)|
|Pork (pieces/whole cuts)||160 F (71 C)|
|Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck) pieces||165 F (74 C)|
|Poultry whole||185 F (85 C)|
|Ground beef, veal, lamb and pork(burgers, sausages, meatballs)||160 F (71 C)|
|Ground poultry||165 F (74 C)|
|Egg dishes||165 F (74 C)|
|Others (hot dogs, stuffing, leftovers)||165 F (74 C)|