Healthy Living in the North

Easter potlucks and food safety

Potluck items on a table

Do your Easter plans include a potluck? Take steps to make sure that your party is not just fun and delicious, but safe, too!

With Easter just around the corner, many people are preparing to gather family and friends for a feast around the table. Potlucks are a popular idea for get-togethers, helping to take some of the burden off of the host. Take steps to make sure that your potluck isn’t just fun, but healthy and safe, too!

Keeping food safe, particularly food prepared at home and brought to another location, is very important in reducing the risk of foodborne illness outbreaks.

Most cases of foodborne illness start in home kitchens not because of the food but because of how the food is prepared. The familiar symptoms many people attribute to “stomach flu” such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, fever, headache and muscle pain may not be the flu but rather foodborne illness. For some people – the very old, the very young, pregnant women and those who have a chronic illness – a foodborne illness can be life threatening.

Potluck meals bring with them the potential for food handling errors that should be avoided. Some of the more common errors include leaving perishable food at room temperature for too long (longer than 2 hours), cooking large amounts of food ahead of time and cooling it improperly, or failing to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Hot foods should be held at 60 C or above (above 140 F) and cold foods at 4 C or below (40 F).

Here’s what you should think about before you decide what to bring to your next potluck:

  1. If the item is perishable, will you be able to keep it cold or hot until it is served?
  2. Will you be able to heat the food or keep it warm once you arrive at the event?
  3. Will there be refrigeration available at the event so foods can be kept cold?

If there are leftovers, or in the event that dishes are prepared in advance of the event, ensure that they are cooled in a timely fashion. Proper cooling requires bringing the food from 60 C to 20 C within two hours and from 20 C to 4 C within four hours. Large dishes can be separated into smaller dishes to expedite the process. When reheating leftovers, ensure they reach an adequate temperature of 74 C.

Here are four simple food safety rules to remember:

  1. Keep hot food hot (above 140 F).
  2. Keep cold food cold (below 40 F).
  3. Keep hands, work surfaces and utensils clean.
  4. Never leave perishable food out of the refrigerator for more than two hours.
Neelam Hayer

About Neelam Hayer

Neelam works as an Environmental Health Officer in Prince George. She completed her BSc in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UNBC before graduating from BCIT's Environmental Health program in 2009. Neelam grew up in northern B.C., so being back in Prince George was like coming back home for her. In her spare time, she enjoys travelling, hiking, playing soccer, trying out healthy new recipes, and spending time with family and friends.


Food safety: a lifelong commitment

This month, we want to know how you are preparing for the future by investing in your health! Tell us (or show us) what you do to invest in your body, your mind, and your relationships for your chance to win great weekly prizes and a $150 grand prize! To inspire you, we’ll be featuring regular healthy aging content on the Northern Health Matters blog all month long!

Raw chicken on a plate with quote from article overlaid

Food safety is a key part of healthy aging!

Did you know that food safety is especially important for healthy aging?

Older adults and seniors are more susceptible to contracting foodborne illnesses because of changes to vital organs as well as aging and changing body systems.

As we age, our organs and immune system also tend to weaken so aren’t able to fight pathogenic bacteria like our healthy adult systems could (or can!). Therefore, it is very important for older adults to practice safe food handling, preparing, and consuming.

Just one tragic example of this recently took place at a church potluck in New Brunswick, where foodborne illness caused the death of an 87-year-old woman and made 30 others ill.

Bessie Scott, 87, was remembered at her funeral Friday, as a wonderful great-grandmother who loved to garden and create handiwork. Her passing was noted in the provincial legislature. Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s acting Chief Medical Officer, says the cause of the gastrointestinal illness that killed Scott has not been confirmed, but she suspects infected poultry. ‘The most likely culprit probably is going to turn out to be the bacteria Clostridium perfringens,’ she says.

Clostridium perfringens is estimated to cause nearly a million cases of foodborne illness each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which also notes that “C. perfringens infection often occurs when foods are prepared in large quantities and kept warm for a long time before serving.”

Make a culture of food safety a lifelong commitment to minimize the risk of foodborne illness! As you age, your immunity is weakened and you may not be able to fight bacteria as easily as if you were a healthy young adult. With a balanced, nutritional diet, good food safety practices, and making wise food choices, you’ll have the healthy aging fuel you need!

Are safe food practices part of how you invest in healthy aging? Let us know for your chance to win!

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Yvonne Liang

About Yvonne Liang

Yvonne is an Environmental Health Officer for the Northern Interior and is based in Prince George. Prior to moving to Prince George, Yvonne lived and worked in southern Ontario and Fort St. John, B.C. She loves to do artwork, paint, and knit during her free time.


A splendid – and safe! – holiday meal: Tips for safe turkey cooking

Cooked turkey

When it comes to turkey and meat, keep in mind two safety tips – temperature control and eliminating cross-contamination – and you and your guests will enjoy a splendid and safe meal this holiday season!

‘Tis the holiday season – such an exciting time! Many of us will have family and friends over, often to dine. But if someone gets sick from a meal that we made, well now that holiday spirit just won’t be the same, will it?

That’s why I want to share safe food handling tips so that you and your good company can continue having a happy holiday. Since winter holidays mean turkey dinner for many, I’ll focus on that.

A 2006 study in Quebec found that a third of raw turkeys tested were positive for Salmonella and Campylobacter. Salmonella and Campylobacter are bacteria that are commonly found on poultry that can make you sick if the food is not prepared properly. Consuming undercooked turkey is of particular concern for children, the elderly, pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals as they are more likely to experience illness and experience it in more severe forms.

So it’s really the luck of the draw when you purchase that raw turkey. You cannot tell if it has bacteria like Salmonella or Campylobacter. Rather than play against the odds, it’s important to play it safe by preparing it safely! The following food safe practices boil down to two subjects: temperature control and eliminating cross-contamination.

If you purchase a fresh turkey, make sure it is kept in the fridge at 4 degrees Celsius or colder and cooked within 2-3 days after purchasing. If the turkey is frozen, it can be thawed safely in the refrigerator or under cold running water. In both instances, it’s good practice to keep the turkey stored in its original plastic wrapper to prevent any potential cross-contamination. Thawing time is approximately an hour per pound so plan accordingly.

Washing hands, utensils and cutting boards before and after contact with the turkey (or any other raw meat for that matter!) are also key to preventing contamination of the bird and other foods. At the same time, recent research says “don’t wash the bird” as splash from the washing process can travel 3 feet or more and contaminate the counter, utensils and any food dishes within that zone. You don’t want to have raw turkey juices on the salad fixings! We want to deliver the turkey into the oven with as little cross contamination, splashing and dripping as possible.

How can you tell your food is done? Visual cues are unreliable. The only sure way to check is to use a probe thermometer and check the internal temperature of the turkey. Your entire turkey and the stuffing must reach at least 75 degrees Celsius (167 F) to be safe to eat. If your turkey is done but your stuffing isn’t, remove the stuffing and cook it separately.

The goal of these tips is to leave as few opportunities as possible for the bacteria to grow and to minimize cross-contamination to other foods. In that way, you and your merry company can enjoy both a splendid meal and holiday!

Happy holidays!

Alicia Parayno

About Alicia Parayno

Alicia is an Environmental Health Officer at the Vanderhoof Public Health Unit. Born and raised in Metro Vancouver, Alicia wanted to experience more of B.C. so, after finishing her education at BCIT, she completed a practicum in Prince George in 2014. Since she enjoyed her northern B.C. experience, she was ready to jump at the opportunity to return to Northern Health the following summer. During her spare time, Alicia likes to walk, hike, cycle, occasionally run and ski when she can. She also enjoys baking, attempting to crochet and having teatime – more than once a day. (Alicia no longer works at Northern Health, we wish her all the best.)


Food safety in the workplace

Soup being ladled into a bowl.

Clean and sanitize surfaces, use serving utensils, cook food thoroughly, and be mindful of time and temperatures to ensure that your next workplace potluck or celebration is a safe one!

I love office potlucks and catered lunches. It’s a time for everyone to break their routine and potentially try something new!

These celebrations do bring up some unique issues and concerns, though, as we think about how to prepare food safely and how to keep it safe throughout the function or meeting.

Here are a few tips that will help with food safety at your next workplace potluck, meeting, or celebration.

Don’t contaminate.

Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly and use a serving utensil (e.g., tongs or spoons) to dish food onto your own plate. This will limit the amount of germs spreading from person to person.

Clean and sanitize.

There’s no guarantee that any surface is cleaned before your food, utensils, and hands touch it so along with washing your hands, make sure to clean and sanitize all surfaces that will come into contact with food. Make a sanitizing solution by mixing a half teaspoon of bleach with 1 litre of water.

Cook the food well.

Cook food completely to an internal temperature of 74 degrees Celsius and try to minimize the time between cooking and serving. Don’t cook food partway through for finishing later since this increases the risk of bacterial growth.

Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

Try to keep food out of the danger zone temperature of between 4 degrees Celsius (refrigerator temperature) and 60 degrees Celsius (hot holding temperature). Bacteria love growing at room temperature so it’s important to keep perishable foods either colder or hotter than the danger zone. Seafood chowder? Keep it hot in the crock pot. Strawberry spinach feta salad? Keep it cold with a bowl of ice water. If this is not possible, consume the food within 2 hours and throw out the leftovers.

Time is a factor.

If there is the possibility of someone taking leftover food home for dinner or to eat the next day, make sure you put a 2 hour rule on covering food and returning it to the fridge. This minimizes the time when most bacteria prefer to grow.

Still have questions? Feel free to contact Northern Health’s Public Health Protection staff for more advice or tips!

Northern Health’s nutrition team has created these blog posts to promote healthy eating, celebrate Nutrition Month, and give you the tools you need to complete the Eating 9 to 5 challenge! Visit the contest page and complete weekly themed challenges for great prizes including cookbooks, lunch bags, and a Vitamix blender!

Daisy Tam

About Daisy Tam

Daisy Tam is an Environmental Health Officer for Northern Health. She also has a background in nutritional science from UBC. Migrating up from southern B.C., Daisy has found the vast north to be full of fun and new winter and summer activities to stay busy. In her spare time, Daisy enjoys playing badminton, hiking, cross-country skiing, skating, baking, and reading as weather permits.