Eating Safely

Avoid Foodborne Illness

What is Foodborne Illness?

Food safety is a vital part of staying well. Each year, about 48 million people in the United States become ill from eating contaminated foods. Thousands are hospitalized and around 3,000 die. The illnesses they get may come from eating foods contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Illnesses you get from contaminated food are called foodborne illnesses, also known as food poisoning.

(Watch the video to learn more about how foodborne illness affects older adults. To enlarge the video, click the brackets in the lower right-hand corner. To reduce the video, press the Escape (Esc) button on your keyboard.)

Older Adults Are at Increased Risk

Foodborne illness can affect anyone, but older adults are at increased risk. As we age, our bodies produce less stomach acid, making it harder to get rid of harmful bacteria that enter our digestive system. Our digestion may slow down, allowing harmful bacteria to stay in our bodies longer. Also, changes in smell and taste can keep us from knowing when food is spoiled.

Foodborne illnesses can cause serious health problems for older adults. An older person who gets a foodborne illness is likely to be sicker longer, and if hospitalized, is likely to have a longer hospital stay.

Reasons for Foodborne Illness

There are many reasons why foodborne illnesses affect us today. People are eating more meals outside the home and consuming more food that is prepared by others. Much of the food we consume is delivered over longer distances. Also, harmful bacteria that are more resistant to drugs are finding their way onto foods.

Foodborne illnesses can be dangerous. Many are caused by bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella, which can cause serious health problems. But if you follow good food safety practices, you can reduce your risk of getting sick from these and other harmful bacteria.

Foods To Avoid

Some foods are more risky for older adults than others. Avoid these foods to reduce your chance of getting foodborne illness.

  • raw or undercooked meat or poultry
  • any raw or undercooked fish, or shellfish, or food containing raw or undercooked seafood e.g., sashimi, found in some sushi or ceviche
  • refrigerated smoked seafood
  • unpasteurized, refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads
  • unpasteurized (raw) dairy products, and juices. Some soft cheeses such as feta, queso blanco, queso fresco, Brie, and Camembert are made with unpasteurized milk.
  • raw or partially cooked eggs and foods commonly made with raw eggs such as raw cookie dough and cake batter, eggnog, and Caesar salad dressing
  • unwashed fresh vegetables, including lettuce/salads
  • hot dogs and luncheon meats, unless they are reheated until steaming hot or 165 degrees Fahrenheit
  • uncooked sprouts, such as bean, alfalfa, clover, or radish sprouts
  • ready-to-eat meat or seafood salads.

Know the Symptoms of Foodborne Illness

It can be difficult to know when harmful bacteria in food have made you sick. After all, you can't see, smell, or taste the bacteria the food may contain. If you get a foodborne illness, you might have upset stomach, abdominal pain, vomiting, or diarrhea. Or, you could have flu-like symptoms with a fever and headache, and body aches. Sometimes people confuse foodborne illness with other types of illness.

Many times people think their foodborne illness was caused by their last meal, but that may not be true. The time between eating the contaminated food and the onset of illness can vary widely. Usually, foodborne bacteria take 1 to 3 days to cause illness. But you could become sick anytime from 30 minutes to 3 weeks after eating some foods with dangerous bacteria. Whether you actually get sick or not depends on a variety of factors, including the type of bacteria in the food.

Learn more about how bacteria can cause foodborne illness. (From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Pay Attention to Product Dates

“Open” dating is found primarily on perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer. “Closed” or “coded” dating might appear on shelf-stable products such as cans and boxes of food.

These are the types of “open” dates that may appear on perishable foods.

  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • A "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is the last date that the manufacturer of the product suggests is best for consuming the food. It is not a "purchase by" or safety date.
  • A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.

If You Have Eaten Contaminated Food

If you think you have a foodborne illness, you should take these steps.

  1. Contact your doctor or health care provider. As an older adult, you are at increased risk for severe infection. Contact your physician immediately if you develop symptoms or think you may be at risk. If you develop signs of infection as discussed with your physician, seek out medical advice and/or treatment immediately.
  2. Preserve the food in question. Wrap it securely, label it "Danger", and freeze it. The food may be used to diagnose your illness and prevent others from getting sick.
  3. Save all packaging materials, such as cans or cartons. Write down the food, the date and time consumed, and save any identical unopened products. Write down as many foods and beverages you can recall consuming in the past week (or longer), since the onset time for various foodborne illnesses differ.
  4. Report the contaminated food. If the suspect food is a USDA-inspected meat, poultry, or egg product, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). For all other foods, call the FDA Office of Emergency Operations at 1-866-300-4374 or 301-796-8240.
  5. Call your local county or city health department if you think you became ill from food you ate at a local restaurant or other eating establishment so they can investigate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that if consumers have questions about foodborne illnesses, they should contact CDC’s hotline at 1-800-232-4636 (24-hour recorded information).

Getting ill from eating contaminated food can be very serious. However, the good news is that if you know how to handle, prepare, store, and consume foods safely, you can reduce your risk of getting a foodborne illness.