What's Really In Our Food?

Edited by Sophia Savva


If you're like me and just quickly buy any food that looks tasty, then think twice! As students, we’re always rushing around, so we usually end up buying non-perishable foods or grab a fast lunch between classes. Thing is, we might be unknowingly buying contaminated food and accidentally contaminating it ourselves.

The Canadian government estimates that one in eight Canadians are affected by food contamination each year. Foods that we tend to eat, like potato chips and frozen chicken nuggets, are often at the center of these cases and are recalled for bacterial contamination.

Usually, food becomes contaminated through bacteria which grows directly on the food or on the machinery and storage containers which come into contact with it. The two most common bacteria implicated in food contamination are Salmonella and E. coli. Both can cause symptoms which range from turning your weekend into a miserable one to, at its worst, hospitalization and death. The government estimates that there are 88,000 infections of Salmonella in Canada each year due to contaminated food. Although it’s easy to get overwhelmed by looking at that number, we can make the issue more manageable by educating ourselves and understanding the causes behind food contamination.

Biofilms are slimy bacterial colonies that stick to wet surfaces, making it easy for the bacteria to grow on machinery and food storage items. Biofilms are extremely adaptable to changing environments and are more resistant to interventions, such as antibiotics or antibacterial cleaning products. Once the bacteria have formed a biofilm, they grow fast! If you’ve ever seen bacteria grow in any of your laboratory courses under controlled conditions, you can imagine just how quickly they grow in ideal environments.

In 2017, a study which isolated bacteria from randomly selected fruits and vegetables, found that our two big players in food contamination, Salmonella and E. coli, are able to grow in biofilms. This may explain why they’re often at the center of contamination outbreaks. The study concluded that hygienic food processing and handling is essential to maintain public safety. 

So, how worried should we really be? Luckily, the answer is: not too worried. A 2016 study that tested fresh fruits and veggies in the Canadian marketplace found contamination to be a rare event.

Despite the rarity, however, the issue is serious enough that in 2015, bacterial contamination was behind 30% of food recalls. So, how do we make sure we don't purchase contaminated food? And how do we make sure we don’t unknowingly contaminate it ourselves?


1. Contamination at Manufacturer Level

There is only so much that we can do to prevent buying already contaminated food. That’s because without proper testing, any food we buy will look uncontaminated to the naked eye, regardless of whether it is or not. That's why CanadaGap and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) have our back.

CanadaGap is a government recognized program that gives out certificates to producers and handlers of fresh fruits and vegetables to ensure that they are operating in a hygienic manner. Grocery stores where you’re likely to get your food like Metro, Loblaw Companies Limited and Wal-mart are partnered up with CanadaGap, so that should ease some of your worries. However, CanadaGap does not certify the food, only the food processing and handling.

The CFIA announces recalls through different channels like Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. However, if you don’t want to commit to checking those outlets, you can also subscribe to their free email program to get recall notices delivered right to your inbox! Recent recall notifications announced by the CFIA included ground meat and flour, which were found to be contaminated with E. coli. The CFIA will send you the manufacturer’s announcement and instructions for what to do next. Usually, these notices include the symptoms to look out for, how to return the product for a full refund and how to dispose of it safely.  

2. Non-Perishables

Pastas, rice, jerky and canned food are considered non-perishables. Cans are definitely a food item that you can find in any student’s pantry and for good reason, since the food won’t rot and can be ready to eat in the three seconds it takes you to open it (easy food for all-nighters!). Keep an eye out when buying them though, because if the can is damaged, it creates a perfect environment for bacteria to enter and grow. Make sure to leave behind cans with dents, bulges and rust, and at home, store them in a cool and dry area. 

In terms of storage life, I’ve got some good news. Canned goods, pastas, rice and noodles (yes, ramen!) can be stored for about two years (jerky for one year) without opening the package. However, once they’re opened and/or cooked, store the food in a container and don’t keep it for more than four days (who are we kidding? It’ll be eaten within a half hour). 

3. Eating Out

For those of us who like to attend outdoor festivals and enjoy eating street food, the big case of contamination at a music festival in Edmonton, Alberta in early August, might have raised some red flags. Nineteen attendants got sick when buying food from a stand which was contaminated with Salmonella. Although a case like this is rare, whether you’re eating out because you’re out with friends or too busy (lazy?) to make food at home, make sure you look for the DineSafe certification.

DineSafe is a Toronto Public Health program that inspects and certifies food establishments in our city. Places receive a “pass,” “conditional pass,” or “closed notice” based on their cleanliness and proper food handling practices. A simple search on their map can show you various restaurants in Toronto, some near our universities, which have been flagged for significant health concerns.

If you do get food poisoning that you think may be connected to eating out, report the case to GastroBusters. This is an initiative that tries to gather information on food contamination concerns in Toronto by investigating cases and connecting them to track their source. This service is confidential and will make sure that outbreaks are reported to the public in a timely manner and hopefully prevent others from getting sick.

4. Animal Products

Animal products are the most likely to be contaminated because they provide an ideal environment for bacteria, especially when they start to rot (ew). Advice for how to prevent contamination of these products is to grab them last at the grocery store, keep them away from other fresh products like veggies, and store them at cool temperatures because bacteria thrive in warmth. Always check best-before dates to ensure that the meat has not been in the store’s freezer for too long.

Keep meat in a separate container so that any juices don’t leak onto anything else. These food safety tips are also true for ready-to-eat food like rotisserie chicken. Make sure the temperatures remain consistent; so, if you’re going to eat it soon, slide it in the oven, if not, cool it in the fridge. If you’re somebody that likes to keep leftovers, make sure you don’t keep any meats past three days.  

5. Preparing and Cooking Food

How do we make sure we don’t unknowingly contaminate our own food? Remember to wash your hands, the counters and the containers you will be using when preparing a meal. Don’t use the same utensils/containers with raw and cooked fish or meat, and if you have to thaw them, do it in the fridge and not at room temperature. Once the food is thawed, you can’t change your mind (my cravings come and go, so this one’s hard); cook it - do not refreeze!

If you’re eating fruits or veggies, remember to wash them because they may have dirt and bacteria. If you’re thinking of using soap, don’t! Soap can leave its own harmful residues. Also, remember to keep your salads (as a matter of fact, all food) covered so that flies or other insects don’t get into them because they can bring their own host of nasties. And lastly, if your roommate is super sick, most experts suggest not eating the meal that they cooked. No matter how hungry you may be, take the turn to cook for them and I’m sure they’ll return the favour.

Still worried? Although these food safety tips won't guarantee 100% that you won't eat contaminated food, they're a great place to start. It might sound like a lot to remember, but soon enough they'll become part of your routine and help you prevent contaminating your own food or eating at places which may make you sick.

Happy eating!