Health Canada

Health Canada

March 11, 2014 10:30 ET

Information Update: Food Safety for People with Weakened Immune Systems

OTTAWA, ONTARIO--(Marketwired - March 11, 2014) -


When you are ill, or when you are being treated for certain conditions, your immune system can be weakened and that can make it more difficult to fight off disease. Some examples of conditions that can weaken your immune system include: diabetes, HIV/AIDS, organ transplant, or if you are receiving chemotherapy for the treatment of cancer. If you are a person with a weakened immune system, you may be at more risk, than the general population, for foodborne illness (also known as food poisoning). If you are preparing food, or someone is preparing food for you, safe food handling and cooking practices should be followed.

Up to four million (or 1 in 8) Canadians get sick every year from foodborne illness. Many cases of food poisoning go unreported because the symptoms are similar to the stomach flu. The most common symptoms of food poisoning include stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. If you are having symptoms, it's important that you not ignore them and seek medical advice, as food poisoning can be particularly dangerous for people with weakened immune systems.

What you should do

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.

Follow these four basic food safety steps to protect yourself from foodborne illness:

  • Cook - Always cook food to the safe internal temperatures. You can check this by using a digital food thermometer. 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. Colour alone is not a reliable indicator that meat is safe to eat. Meat, especially ground beef, can turn brown and appear cooked before all the bacteria are killed. Remember, you can't tell if food is safe by its smell or taste. When in doubt - throw it out!
  • Clean - Clean anything that comes in contact with the food (your hands, kitchen surfaces and utensils, reusable grocery bags, etc.). Use regular soap to wash your hands. An alcohol-based rub can be used if soap and water are not available. This will help eliminate bacteria and reduce your risk of foodborne illness. In addition, fruits and vegetables should be washed under running water that is suitable for drinking.
  • Chill - The most important thing to remember is to keep cold food cold and hot food hot so that your food never reaches the "temperature danger zone," which is between 4°C and 60°C (40°F and 140°F). Defrost raw meat, poultry and fish in the refrigerator, in the microwave, or immersed in cold water (replaced every 30 minutes), never at room temperature. Foods defrosted in the microwave should be cooked immediately. Don't refreeze thawed food.
  • Separate - Always separate raw foods, such as meat and eggs, from ready-to-eat foods, like cooked meat and vegetables, to avoid cross-contamination. 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.

Pay attention to the foods that you eat - Some foods are at higher risk for foodborne bacteria contamination than others. Here are some good tips for people with weakened immune systems to follow:

  • Make sure to cook hot dogs and deli meats until they are steaming hot before eating them.
  • Don't eat raw or undercooked meat, poultry, fish or seafood.
  • Avoid refrigerated smoked fish or seafood.
  • Avoid unpasteurized juice, cider and milk.
  • Avoid all soft and semi-soft cheeses made from raw, unpasteurized, and pasteurized milk.
  • Avoid refrigerated pâtés and meat spreads.
  • Avoid uncooked foods made from raw or unpasteurized eggs.

For more information

If you would like to read more about food safety, please visit these websites:

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