Every year, 10 million Canadians experience some form of food poisoning. That number would be significantly reduced if more people followed simple food-safety practices.

There are two major causes of food poisoning, experts say: leaving food at the wrong temperature for too long and contaminating food through poor hygiene.

The onset of summer increases the risk of food poisoning, when barbecues, picnics and trips to the cottage lead to leaving food out of the safety of the refrigerator for long periods.

“When taking foods out of the house, it is important to keep them at the right temperature,” says Sue Mah, a registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition Solutions Inc. in Toronto.

When food is in the fridge, it is kept at about four degrees Celsius; in the oven, it is at 60C or higher. When between those temperatures, food is considered to be in the “temperature danger zone,” when hazardous bacteria can develop.

“Keep hot foods in a thermos and cold foods in a cooler until it’s time to eat them,” Mah says. “Bacteria starts to grow in food after it has been sitting out for two hours.”

Bacteria develops in even less time in meat, fish or egg sandwiches that are left outside on a hot summer day.

Another essential factor in preventing food-related illnesses is to be vigilant about hygiene. That means both personal cleanliness and keeping cooking areas such as stoves and countertops sanitized, says “the Spice Lady,” Sharon Elston, a registered food safety instructor and a performing chef in Toronto.

Wash your hands frequently when preparing food and keep your hair covered or tied back when cooking. Hair is a major cause of food-borne illnesses, Elston says.

Be sure your cooking surfaces are sanitized — not just clean. Sanitizing kills micro-organisms such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. “When people wipe down surfaces in their kitchens,” Elston says, “there can be as many germs in the sponge or cloth as there are on a piece of raw chicken.”

She recommends using a household cleaning product to make the surface wet. Then let it air dry.

> Thawing Meat, Fish And Poultry. Thawing can be dangerous because it can lead to the formation of bacteria. Never thaw on the counter. The safest place to thaw is in the fridge or under very cold running water at a constant temperature. If you thaw meat in the microwave, use it right away. Alternatively, thaw as part of the cooking process.

“Some people want to hurry things along and put the frozen item in a large vat of water to thaw, but that’s dangerous,” Elston says. “Different parts of the food thaw at different rates. And bacteria can start developing in an area that’s not frozen and spread to other parts.”

> Cooking Meat. To ensure you’re cooking to the required temperature, use a bimetallic cooking thermometer. Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat and ensure it is not touching any bone or gristle.

Ground meats can be particularly hazardous if not fully cooked because they’re made from different parts of the animal, Elston says. Therefore, there are many different surface areas on which bacteria can grow. Cook hamburgers to an internal temperature of 70C, or until you can’t see any pink.

If you don’t like your burgers well done, Elston suggests, buy a contained piece of muscle — such as brisket, prime rib or flank steak — and grind it yourself. Then, cook it the way you like.

To avoid cross-contamination when cooking, keep raw food — especially meat, which may contain bacteria — away from cooked food, says Mah. She suggests using two sets of tongs when cooking: one for handling the raw food and another set for taking cooked food off the grill. If you don’t have two sets, be sure to wash the tongs with hot, soapy water between uses. The same goes for serving bowls, platters, the cutting board and the thermometer. Mah recommends using different-coloured cutting boards for raw meat, cooked food, and fruits and vegetables.

Put leftovers in the fridge immediately and use within three or four days. The Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education says leftovers should be heated to a temperature of 74C (165 degrees Fahrenheit) before eating.

@page_break@Eating Outdoors.

Plan a picnic with cold food and leave it on ice during the meal or in the cooler until somebody comes back for seconds. Keep food cold while it is on the picnic table by nesting serving dishes in larger containers filled with ice. Put food away after two hours — even sliced fruit. IE