Most cases of food-borne illness are caused during preparation and handling, and about half result after eating at restaurants, according to a new report.

The Conference Board of Canada's report estimates there are nearly 6.8 million cases of food-borne illness annually in Canada, mostly mild with minor discomfort.

Between 70  to 80 per cent of food-borne illnesses were tied to mistakes in the final preparation and handling of food products, the report's authors found.

"The point is Canada does have a good food safety system, but there is room for improvement along the farm to fork continuum, especially in food services and at the household level," said Daniel Munro, principal research associate of the study.

To prevent the half of illnesses that are picked up at home, people should keep in mind that perishable foods high in protein with a neutral pH offer the perfect environment for bacteria to grow, CBC's medical specialist Dr. Karl Kabasele said Thursday.

"Temperature is always the key when it comes to preventing food poisoning," Kabasele said.

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Contamination of prepared and cooked foods from raw meat or fish can be one source of food-borne illness. (Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times/Associated Press)

The "danger zone" for bacteria is between 4 C and 70 C, which is why food in the refrigerator should be kept below 4 C.

Other safe-food handling tips include:

  • Get in the habit of throwing food out if it goes beyond the best-before date.
  • Don't cross-contaminate prepared foods with raw meat, chicken or fish.
  • Use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw and cooked foods.
  • Clean up as you cook and wash and sanitize surfaces promptly.

If in doubt about food safety at a restaurant, choose lower-risk foods such as well-cooked meat, he said.

The report's authors recommend:

  • Providing small and medium restaurants and food service operators with management advice and information on how they can minimize food safety risks and act in the case of outbreaks.
  • Encouraging better behaviour among consumers by building on current consumer awareness programs.
  • Harmonizing private standards to protect the public interest.
  • Making greater use of technology to improve visibility and traceability.
  • Adding resources to address the potential increase in risks from international food sources.
With files from The Canadian Press