Food safety for people with weakened immune systems
Many people deal with serious illnesses and chronic conditions that can have a significant impact on their lives. Some conditions, as well as treatments for certain illnesses, can weaken your immune system and this can make it difficult to fight off harmful foodborne bacteria.
Every year, thousands of Canadians get food poisoning (also known as foodborne illness or food-related illness). If your immune system is weakened, you should take extra care when handling, storing, preparing, and shopping for food. In addition, consumption of certain high-risk foods should be avoided.
Your ability to fight disease is lowered when your immune system is weak. As a result, people with weak immune systems are at greater risk than the general population of becoming ill after eating contaminated food. In addition, the health effects caused by food poisoning may be more serious for people with weak immune systems. Some examples of conditions that can weaken your immune system are:
- cancer (especially for people receiving chemotherapy)
- organ transplantation
Treatments for cancer, such as chemotherapy and radiation, can leave the immune system severely weakened. Your levels of immunity will also be lower than usual if you are taking high doses of drugs, such as steroids or immune suppressants.
Some people can get food poisoning and not even know they have it. Food poisoning is caused by eating foods that are contaminated.
If you have any conditions that can affect your immune system, talk to your doctor about your increased risk of foodborne illness. If you are at increased risk, you should take special care when handling, storing, preparing, and shopping for food. Here are some important food safety and preparation techniques to help protect yourself from food poisoning.
Cooking food at high temperatures usually kills bacteria contained in your food. However, it doesn't help to control bacteria that may have spread to your refrigerator, counters or utensils while the food was being stored or prepared. Follow the safety tips below to protect yourself and your family.
Did you know?
You can't tell if food is unsafe by its smell or taste. When in doubt, throw it out!
- Buy cold or frozen food at the end of your shopping trip.
- Check the "best before" date on your food.
- Keep your raw meat, poultry, fish, and seafood away from other food in your grocery cart.
- Examine fruits and vegetables carefully and avoid buying items that are bruised or damaged.
- If you use reusable grocery bags or bins, make sure to use a specific bag or bin for meat, poultry or seafood. Label the bag or bin with the type of food it carries.
Cleaning your hands, kitchen surfaces, utensils, fruit and vegetables, and reusable grocery bags will help eliminate bacteria and reduce the risk of food-related illness.
- Use regular soap to wash your hands. An alcohol-based hand rub can be used if soap and water are not available.
- Use one cutting board for produce, and a separate one for raw meat, poultry, fish and seafood.
- Use paper towels to wipe kitchen surfaces, or change dishcloths daily to avoid the risk of cross-contamination and the spread of bacteria. Avoid using sponges, as they are harder to keep bacteria-free.
- Sanitize countertops, cutting boards, and utensils before and after preparing food. Use a kitchen sanitizer (following the directions on the container) or a bleach solution (5 ml household bleach to 750 ml of water), and rinse with water.
It is important to keep cold food cold and hot food hot, so that your food never reaches the "temperature danger zone." This is where bacteria can grow quickly and cause food poisoning.
- Keep your raw meat, poultry, fish, and seafood cold. Refrigerate or freeze them as soon as you get home from the grocery store.
- Make sure your refrigerator is set at 4 °C (40 °F) or lower and your freezer at -18 °C (0 °F) or lower. This will keep your food out of the temperature danger zone between 4 °C (40 °F) to 60 °C (140 °F) where bacteria can grow quickly.
- Place raw meat, poultry, fish, and seafood in sealed containers or plastic bags on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator so raw juices won't drip onto other food.
- Deli meats can be more risky for older adults to eat. Store deli meats in the refrigerator and use them within four days or, preferably, two to three days after opening.
- Cook raw meat, poultry, fish, and seafood no more than two to three days after purchasing. If you do not intend to cook it within this time, it should be frozen.
The safest way to thaw food, especially raw meat, poultry, fish or seafood, is in the refrigerator. Always defrost food in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave - never at room temperature. Don't re-freeze thawed food. Remember, to avoid cross-contamination thoroughly wash your hands and clean and sanitize the sink and all other utensils, surfaces, and dishes that you use when thawing the food.
Cooking food properly is the best way to make sure it is safe to eat. Bacteria like E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria are killed by heat.
- Cook food completely, using a clean thermometer to measure the temperature. See Health Canada's safe internal cooking temperatures to learn the proper way of taking measurements and to make sure that the food has been cooked to a safe internal temperature.
- If you are cooking several pieces of meat, poultry, fish or seafood, make sure to check the internal temperature of the thickest pieces because food can cook unevenly.
- Cut away any bruised or damaged areas, since harmful bacteria can thrive in these areas.
- Make sure that cooked foods don't come into contact with any food that hasn't been cooked.
- Keep hot foods at or above 60ºC (140°F). Bacteria can grow quickly in the danger zone between 4°C to 60°C (40°F to 140°F).
Did you know?
Colour does not always tell you if your food is safe to eat. Always follow internal cooking temperatures to be safe!
- Refrigerate or freeze all leftovers within two hours to minimize the chance of bacteria growing.
- To store leftovers safely, cut and debone the meat from large cooked birds.
- Avoid overstocking the refrigerator, so that cool air can circulate effectively.
- Use refrigerated leftovers as soon as possible, ideally within two to four days.
- When reheating food, make sure it's cooked to a temperature of at least 74°C (165°F). In general, you shouldn't reheat the same leftovers more than once.
elect safer alternatives
Some types of food can be a higher risk for people with weakened immune systems because of the way they are produced and how they are stored. You can minimize your chances of getting food poisoning by avoiding some types of food. The following chart can help you make alternative choices when selecting food.
(Always refer to safe internal cooking temperatures.)
|Type of food||Food to avoid||Safer alternative|
|Hot dogs||Hot dogs straight from the package without further heating.||Hot dogs thoroughly cooked to a safe internal temperature. The middle of the hot dog should be steaming hot or 74°C (165°F).|
|Tip: To help prevent food poisoning, avoid spreading fluid from packages onto other food, cutting boards, utensils, dishes, and food preparation surfaces. Wash your hands after handling hot dogs.|
|Deli meats||Non-dried deli meats, such as bologna, roast beef, and turkey breast.||Dried and salted deli meats such as salami and pepperoni.
|Non-dried deli meats heated throughout to steaming hot.|
|Egg and egg products||Raw or lightly cooked egg or egg products, including salad dressings, cookie dough, cake batter, sauces, and drinks such as homemade eggnog.||Egg dishes thoroughly cooked to a safe internal temperature. Eggs should be cooked until the yolk is firm.|
|Homemade eggnog must be heated to 71°C (160°F).|
|Tip: Pasteurized egg products can be used when making uncooked food that calls for raw eggs.|
|Meat and poultry||Raw or undercooked meat or poultry, such as steak tartar.||Meat and poultry cooked to a safe internal temperature. (refer to the Internal Cooking Temperatures Chart)|
|Tip: To help prevent food poisoning, remember to use a digital food thermometer to check the internal temperature.|
|Seafood||Raw seafood, such as sushi.||Seafood cooked to a safe internal temperature of 74°C (165°F).|
|Raw oysters, clams, and mussels.||Cook until the shell has opened.|
|Refrigerated, smoked seafood.||Smoked seafood in cans that do not require refrigeration until after opening.|
|Tip: Refrigerated smoked seafood can be eaten safely when fully cooked to a safe internal temperature, such as in a casserole.|
|Dairy products||Raw or unpasteurized dairy products, including pasteurized soft and semi-soft cheese such as Brie, Camembert, and blue-veined cheese.||Pasteurized dairy products and hard cheeses such as Colby, Cheddar, Swiss, and Parmesan.|
|Sprouts||Raw sprouts such as alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung beans.||Thoroughly cooked sprouts.|
|Pâtés and meat spreads||Refrigerated pâtés and meat spreads.||Pâtés and meat spreads sold in cans or those that do not require refrigeration until after opening.|
|Fruit juice and cider||Unpasteurized fruit juice and cider.||Unpasteurized fruit juice and cider brought to a rolling boil and cooled.
|Pasteurized fruit juice and cider.|
Also, it is strongly suggested that you pay attention to food recalls and learn more about general food safety.
The Government of Canada is committed to food safety. Health Canada establishes regulations and standards relating to the safety and nutritional quality of foods sold in Canada. Through inspection and enforcement activities, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency verifies that food sold in Canada meets Health Canada's requirements.