Overview of Foodborne Illnesses and Seniors  
Even with safety and regulation, bacteria and parasites that contaminate our food can be a threat to any individual, but particularly so for older adults. This threat consequently leads to the possibility of foodborne illnesses, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), affect about 48 million people each year. This staggering number equates to 1 in every 6 Americans affected by an illnesses. Common foodborne illnesses include salmonella, listeria, E coli, Norovirus, botulism, staph aureus, giardia, and campylobacter.
As stated, older adults are at a higher risk of contracting a foodborne illnesses, which can be especially dangerous as it takes longer for them to recover. Seniors are more vulnerable because of weakened immune systems and lack of stomach acid to break down pathogens in food and water. Because of these factors, recovering from foodborne illnesses is difficult and can result in hospitalization or death. However, foodborne illnesses are very preventable if proper precautions are taken.
Symptoms usually appear 12 to 72 hours after consuming the contaminated food. However, symptoms can also appear 30 minutes after consuming the contaminated food, or even 4 weeks later. Symptoms include:
- Diarrhea, which may be bloody
- Abdominal pain
- Body ache
If you think your client has a foodborne illness, contact their doctor or healthcare provider immediately!
At the grocery store
- Do not purchase foods with damaged or opened packaging, such as dented cans or cracked jars. If a package is damaged or leaking, purchase a non-damaged one instead.
- Do not purchase produce (fruits or vegetables) that are bruised, damaged, or rotten.
- Store raw meat, seafood, or poultry in a separate plastic bag in your shopping cart to prevent them from contaminating other foods.
- Do not purchase expired foods/produce and be mindful of the “sell-by,” “use-by,” and “best if used by” dates on the packaging.
When handling and preparing food
- Wash hands thoroughly and completely with warm, soapy water for a minimum of twenty seconds (or sing the “Happy Birthday” song to yourself twice) before, during, and after handling food.
- Clean any surfaces that may be involved in food preparation. Click here to learn how to maintain a clean and healthy environment.
- Wash produce thoroughly and completely, and discard the outer leaves. Do not place unwashed produce on cutting boards or other kitchen tools.
- Wash produce like melons and pineapples prior to cutting, as the knife can spread bacteria from the skin to the inside of the fruit.
- Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods being prepared to prevent cross contamination. Have separate cutting boards and other food preparation tools (such as knives and spatchulas) for raw and cooked foods. Clean all tools thoroughly during and after cooking.
- Do not eat contaminated foods or foods that you think may be contaminated, even if the chance is small.
- Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of cooked food and guarantee that food has been cooked safely. Many meats have specific temperatures to be cooked at to be considered safe. For example, ground beef should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit and chicken should be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Cook eggs until yolks are firm.
- Discard marinades from raw meats.
- Keep the refrigerator temperature at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Refrigerate all perishable foods within two hours of cooking. If you have a large amount of leftovers, store them in smaller containers to cool them quicker. Reheat leftovers properly as well.
- Thaw foods in the refrigerator, cold water, or microwave. Do not thaw foods out on a countertop.
- Avoid preparing food if you have a contagious disease.
- Store cleaning products away from food to prevent further contamination.
- Throw away food if it smells, is discolored, or is old. Discard food even if there is the smallest shred of doubt.
When eating out
- Avoid foods that contain uncooked ingredients. These foods are marked as uncooked on the menu, but ask the waiter/waitress to be safe.
- Send back food if it appears to not be properly cooked.
- Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of leaving the restaurant. If the air is 90 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter, refrigerate within one hour of leaving the restaurant. If you have a large amount of leftovers, store them in smaller containers to cool them quicker. Reheat leftovers properly as well.
Foods Seniors Should Avoid 
According to the Food and Drug Administration, seniors are advised to not consume the following foods. Be sure to check with your client’s doctor to see if they have other foods they recommend for your client to avoid.
- Raw or uncooked meat or poultry.
- Raw seafood, such as raw fish.
- Raw shellfish and their juices, such as oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops
- Partially cooked seafood, such as shrimp and crab.
- Refrigerated smoked seafood, such as smoked salmon.
- Unpasteurized (raw) milk and products made with unpasteurized milk. These products are labeled accordingly.
- Soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, such as feta, brie, camembert, blue-vined, and Mexican-style cheese, including queso fresco, queso blanco, panela, and asadero.
- Raw, uncooked, or undercooked eggs
- Foods containing raw, uncooked, or undercooked eggs, such as some homemade salad dressings (like Caesar salad dressing), homemade cookie dough and cake batters, and homemade eggnog. Remember that pre-made foods from grocery stores (such as Caesar salad dressing and packaged eggnog) are usually made with pasteurized eggs. The packaging will say which type of egg the product is made with.
- Unwashed fresh fruits or vegetables
- Unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juices. These products will be labeled as such.
- Hot dogs, lunch meats (cold cuts), fermented and dry sausage, and other deli-style meats, poultry, and smoked fish. However, these items are safe to consume if they are reheated until steaming hot.
- Salads (without added preservatives) prepared at a deli-style establishment, such as chicken salad, ham salad, or seafood salad.
- Unpasteurized, refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads.
- Raw sprouts, such as alfalfa and bean sprouts.
For more information, contact the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline by calling 1-888-674-6854 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If you think your client has a foodborne illness, contact their doctor or healthcare provider immediately!