It seems that there is a new recall on produce, poultry, dairy, or fish almost every week — not to mention reports of illness or hospitalization from contaminated food in restaurants. The threat of bacteria and parasites contaminating our food remains constant, even in a world of increased safety and regulation.
With that threat comes the possibility of foodborne illness, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention affects nearly 48 million people every year.
Although foodborne illness is a concern at any age, seniors are often at greater risk of contracting it, and it can take them much longer to recover.
Why seniors are more vulnerable
There are numerous changes that occur in the body as we age, but one of the most significant is the weakening of our immune system. The body’s natural defense system simply is no longer able to fight illness as efficiently as before. To make matters worse, the liver and kidneys have a harder time ridding the body of toxins. Additionally, the stomach secretes less of the acid needed to help break down pathogens ingested with food and water.
Prescription medication also plays a role. Most medications used to help treat chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease have side effects that further weaken the immune system.
Because of these factors, bouncing back from any kind of food poisoning becomes increasingly difficult the older we get. For seniors, that often means an increased risk of hospitalization or death.
Protecting against foodborne illness
It’s vital that seniors are armed with the right information so they don’t risk their health and wellbeing. Below are a few of the recommended tips from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that senior clients can begin to incorporate into their daily lives.
At the grocery store
• Don’t purchase any dented cans or cracked jars. If the packaging looks as if it’s been damaged in any way, or if it’s leaking, find and purchase a non-damaged one instead.
• Similarly, don’t purchase produce that looks bruised or damaged.
• Place any raw meat, seafood, or poultry in a separate plastic bag so that juices don’t drip onto other food in the cart.
• Pay particularly close attention to the product dating (e.g., sell-by, use-by, and best if used by).
Food handling and preparation
• Wash hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds prior to handling food.
• Sanitize any surfaces that may come into contact with food during preparation.
• Thoroughly wash any produce (fruits and vegetables) with tap water.
• Avoid cross contamination (bacteria spreading from one food to another) by separating raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods being prepared. Consider having a separate cutting board for any raw foods and another for vegetables, bread, or cooked meats.
• Check the internal temperature of cooked food with a food thermometer to ensure that it is cooked safely — and do not rely solely on the color of the food. Most meats have a specific safe temperature associated with them. For instance, ground beef is considered safe when cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, while chicken’s safe temperature is 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
• While on the subject of temperature, be sure that your refrigerator temperature is always at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Refrigerate all perishable foods within two hours of cooking.
• Food should only be thawed in the refrigerator, cold water, or microwave. Never leave it out on the countertop to thaw.
When eating out
• Whenever possible, avoid foods that have any uncooked ingredients. These are usually marked as such on the menu, but when in doubt, ask the waiter or waitress.
• If the food looks like it hasn’t been properly cooked, ask to have it sent back.
• Refrigerate any leftovers within two hours of leaving the restaurant — or one hour if the air temperature is at or above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.