Learn signs and symptoms of food poisoning and its complications with simple, practical ways to prevent food-related illness in seniors.
Food poisoning, also known as food-related illness or foodborne illness, can affect people of any age, but seniors fall under a high-risk category for developing serious complications related to food poisoning. Contaminated food often looks and smells just fine, but eating or drinking food that is improperly prepared or stored can make a senior sick…very sick. Learn more about how to ensure that the food being served is safe for seniors and everyone else at the table.
Food Poisoning Statistics
People who have developed food poisoning are not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year foodborne illnesses in the United States account for:
- Illness in about 76 million people
- Hospitalization in approximately 325,000 persons
- Death in about 5,000 people
Older adults fall under a high-risk category for contracting food poisoning and experiencing complications related to foodborne illnesses due to several factors:
- The immune system tends to weaken after age 75.
- Many seniors have at least one chronic condition, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, etc.
- Certain medications may make seniors more susceptible to foodborne illnesses.
Foods Most Likely to Cause Food Poisoning
Foods that are the most likely to cause illness if improperly prepared or stored are:
- Uncooked fresh fruits
- Uncooked fresh vegetables
- Raw animal products (eggs – particularly unpasteurized ones, meat, poultry, seafood)
- Certain processed animal products such as unpasteurized milk or soft cheese made with unpasteurized milk
Avoid purchasing any food that is sold in unsanitary conditions or in ways that appear to compromise the safety of the food, even if the packaging appears intact. Always ensure that the food’s “sell by” date has not expired as well.
How to Prevent Food Poisoning and Foodborne Illness
Practical tips for safe food handling include the USDA Fight BAC! campaign:
- Wash hands and surfaces frequently.
- Avoid cross-contamination.
- Cook foods at the recommended temperatures for an appropriate length of time.
- Refrigerate foods properly.
Washing Hands Saves Lives provides details about proper hand hygiene. Ways to reduce germs on surfaces in the kitchen include:
- Use soapy hot water to wash utensils and counter tops before and after preparing each item.,
- Either use paper towels for cleaning surfaces or a cloth towel that is frequently washed in hot water with detergent.
- Rinse all fruits and vegetables under running tap water – rub fruits with thick skins.
- Clean lids before opening cans and inspect cans to ensure they do not have dents, cracks, or bulging lids.
Cross-contamination occurs when bacteria are transferred from one product to another. This can easily occur when preparing multiple dishes, especially when handling raw meat, eggs, poultry, or seafood, such as when preparing a holiday meal for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Tips to prevent cross-contamination include:
- Separate the above four types of foods from other foods in the grocery cart and refrigerator. Place these items in separate plastic bags to prevent dripping of juices onto other foods.
- Use two cutting boards: one for produce and the other for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
- Plates, bowls, platters, etc. that have held raw meat, etc. should be thoroughly washed with hot soapy water before placing cooked food on them.
- Marinades that are reused on raw foods should be brought to a boil first.
Proper cooking temperature is important while preparing meals. Safe cooking temperature tips include:
- Cook foods to at least the USDA recommended safe minimum internal temperature – this is typically found on the label of most meats (specific cooking temperatures are listed in the linked USDA article at the bottom).
- Use a food thermometer to be sure of the temperature because foods may appear fully cooked when they have not reached that temperature in the center.
- If cooking foods in a microwave, cover, stir and rotate the food for even cooking. Allow the food to sit for a few moments to complete the cooking process before checking the temperature of the food.
- The FDA has specific guidelines for each type of meat, with minimum safe temperatures ranging from 145ºF for steaks and roasts to 165ºF for whole poultry.
Storing foods and drinks at a safe temperature can also help prevent food poisoning. A few practical safety tips for storing foods include:
- Foods should be chilled within two hours of purchasing or cooking – use coolers or other cold sources for transporting perishable foods during warmer weather.
- If the environmental temperature is 90ºF or higher, foods should be refrigerated or frozen within one hour.
- The refrigerator temperature should stay at 40ºF or less.
- The freezer temperature should stay at 0ºF or less.
- Frozen food should be thawed in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave.
- Thawed food should be cooked immediately.
- Divide leftovers into shallow containers for faster cooling in the refrigerator.
- Refer to the USDA Cold Storage Chart for specific guidelines on how long certain foods may be safely refrigerated and how long these foods may be frozen and still maintain quality.
How to Prevent Food Poisoning in Seniors
Although seniors are at risk for food poisoning, many of the safety tips for safe food preparation and storage are simple and inexpensive. An ounce of prevention may equal a life saved.