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Food safety

People with cancer need to be careful about food safety. Cancer and its treatment can weaken your immune system. The body may be less able to fight infection from bacteria or other organisms that could be in foods.

Your healthcare team can help you make food choices that are safest for you. They will know your treatment schedule and will be watching you closely for signs of a weakened immune system. They can help with any concerns you have about food safety steps that you should take or foods that you should avoid.

Prepare, cook and store your foods with care

  • Wash your hands with warm soapy water before and after preparing food and before eating.
  • Wash vegetables and fruit thoroughly under running water before peeling or cutting.
  • Avoid vegetables and fruits that can’t be washed well, such as raspberries.
  • Scrub vegetables and fruit that have firm surfaces such as potatoes, carrots, oranges and melons.
  • Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on produce. Bacteria can thrive in these places.
  • Wash the top lids of canned foods with soap and water before opening.
  • Rinse packaged salads under running water even when marked “pre-washed.”
  • Refrigerate foods at or below 4oC (40oF).
  • Thaw meat, fish or poultry in the microwave or refrigerator (not on the counter).
  • Put food in the refrigerator within 2 hours of serving. Foods containing eggs, cream or mayonnaise should be refrigerated after no more than one hour.
  • Use defrosted foods right away and do not refreeze them.
  • Cook meats until well done, with no traces of pink in the centre. Red meats should be cooked to an internal temperature of 77oC (170oF) or 71oC (160oF) if the meat is ground. Poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 85oC (185oF) or 74oC (165oF) if ground or in pieces (breast, legs, thighs). A meat thermometer is your only way to be sure of the internal temperature.
  • Use different spoons to taste and stir your food while you’re cooking it.
  • Cool hot foods, uncovered, in the refrigerator. Place in storage containers after cooling. Freeze what you do not plan to use within the next 2 to 3 days. Throw out all prepared foods after 3 days in the refrigerator.
  • Throw out entire food packages or containers with any mould, including yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, fruit, vegetables, jelly, and bread and pastry products.

Keep your work surfaces and kitchen equipment clean

  • Use separate cutting boards for raw foods and cooked foods. Use one cutting board for fresh produce and a different one for raw meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Wash cutting boards after each use in hot, soapy water or in the dishwasher.
  • Get rid of worn cutting boards.
  • Keep appliances, countertops and kitchen surfaces free of food crumbs.
  • Consider using paper towels to wipe kitchen surfaces or change dishcloths daily to avoid the possibility of cross-contamination and the spread of bacteria.
  • Wash dishcloths in the hot cycle of the washing machine.
  • Avoid using sponges because they are harder to keep bacteria-free.
  • Clean and sanitize countertops, cutting boards and utensils each week with a disinfectant cleaner or a mild bleach solution of 5 mL (1 teaspoon) of bleach per 750 mL (3 cups) of water.

Shop for food with care

  • Read food labels to make sure food isn’t past its sell-by date.
  • Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs separate from other foods in your grocery cart.
  • Buy only pasteurized, refrigerated milk and dairy products.
  • Pick up perishable foods last, and plan to go directly home from the grocery store.
  • Avoid foods from bulk bins, salad bars, delicatessens, buffets, potlucks and sidewalk vendors.

Try to avoid

  • raw or undercooked eggs (like in Caesar salad dressing)
  • raw and undercooked meat, fish, shellfish, poultry and tofu
  • unwashed raw vegetables and fruit and those with visible mould
  • home-canned vegetables, fruit, meats and fish
  • well water, unless tested yearly and found to be safe

Your healthcare team or dietitian may suggest other foods to stay away from, depending on your situation.

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