COLUMN: Steer clear of peril packed in the picnic basket

Public Health Ontario estimates more than 100,000 cases of food-borne illness occur in the province each year, says food columnist

“It was the salmon mousse…” The Grim Reaper, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

The summer is unofficially upon us! Picnics in the park, family potlucks and patio visits give us a chance to go out and enjoy all that dining ‘al fresco’ provides. It’s important to remember that could be peril packed in that picnic and the last thing you want is food poisoning panic at the potluck.

Public Health Ontario estimates more than 100,000 cases of food-borne illness occur in the province each year.

Our risk of food poisoning increases during the summer because harmful bacteria will grow quickly in the warm, moist conditions of our hot and humid Ontario summers.

A case of food poisoning can vary from minor to severe, with symptoms appearing from hours to even weeks after eating contaminated food. This makes tracking and diagnosis difficult.

Young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are all at greatest risk from serious cases of food poisoning. In extreme cases symptoms can include paralysis, double vision, difficulty swallowing and breathing, and even death.

This makes understanding the basics of food safety very important to not only you as a home cook and consumer but to those of us in the profession of providing food and beverages to the public.

All of our hospitality students at Georgian College receive food-safety training as part of our programs, and our staff and faculty take great care in reinforcing those work habits and safety protocols that keep our kitchens clean and our food wholesome and safe. These are some of the most important lessons that we teach to those who want careers in commercial food service and those that, if disregarded, have the potential to do the most harm.

Here in our region, we are lucky. There is a system in place and people that are the unsung heroes of food safety and defenders of our public health — the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit and the public health inspectors.

This is a job that has many challenges and many different facets; sometimes it can be thankless, misunderstood and criticized, but one that is key to helping ensure collectively that our safety is protected.

Public health inspectors — also known as an environmental health officer or environmental health inspector — work within public health teams and have the responsibility of promoting public health through education and monitoring.

Their scope of work covers food hygiene, insect and rodent control, communicable disease investigation, public accommodation, community care facilities, public recreational facilities, water supply and waste disposal systems, occupational health and safety, environmental pollution … the list goes on. They may also be responsible for enforcing environmental legislation.

In order to work as a public health inspector in Canada, you must be certified with the Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors (CIPHI). The certification process includes field placement and written and oral exams.

Over the next few years, our health unit is also expecting to need to fill many new positions as the labor force ages and retires and as our communities expend. Maybe a career in public health is something that you might be interested in? For more information on how to become a public health inspector, check out the CIPHI website.

I’ve always had great admiration for the men and women who work as our inspectors. The job is an important one and any good manager, owner or operator respects that.

I hope that you, your family and friends all get out and enjoy the opportunities to eat and celebrate another great Ontario summer. May your picnics be pleasant and your potlucks perfect.

“Picnics and barbecues are fun ways to spend time with family and friends outside during the summer time. The four basic rules of food safety are clean, separate, cook, and chill. These four safeguards will allow you to enjoy cooking and prevent food poisoning from spoiling your summer,” says Minister of Health and Long-Term Care Dr. Eric Hoskins.

Daniel Clements is the chef technologist at Georgian College’s School of Hospitality and Tourism.

Leave a Comment