Taking A Bite Out of Food-Borne Illnesses

Seniors are especially vulnerable to foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning. The CDC estimates it to afflict at least 33 million every year. Many cases go unreported.

Older people’s immune systems do not respond as quickly or effectively as a younger person’s. Even the decline of acidity in seniors’ stomachs eliminates an important natural defense against foodborne bacteria. Severe food poisoning is most life-threatening to people over 70.

“When seniors have a food-borne illness, the consequences are more apt to persist or to lead to secondary types of illness,” -- Dr. Margy J. Woodburn at Oregon State University.

While some viruses and parasites can the culprit, most foodborne illness is caused by bacteria such as E. coli, (found in unpasteurized milk and undercooked ground beef) and salmonella (found in raw chicken, raw meat, and eggs). E. coli can cause kidney failure and brain damage. Other foods can also become contaminated if they come in contact with the bacteria indirectly, such as from knives, cutting boards or hands that have previously touched infected meat.

Diagnosing food poisoning can be tricky. Common symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, headache, vomiting and severe exhaustion. Sometimes blood or pus appears in the stools but symptoms vary according to the type and amount of contaminants eaten.

Symptoms may come on as early as half-hour after eating, but sometimes the onset doesn’t begin for days or weeks and it can be mistaken for a stomach flu. They usually last only a day or two, but in some cases can persist a week to 10 days.

In Case of Illness
If you suspect that you or a family member has foodborne illness, follow these general guidelines:
1. Preserve the evidence. This will help doctors diagnose the cause. If a portion of the suspect food is available, wrap it securely, mark “DANGER” and refrigerate it. Save all the packaging materials, such as cans or cartons.Write down the food type, the date, and time consumed, and when the symptoms started.
2. Seek treatment immediately, especially in case of frequent or bloody diarrhea or if diarrhea or vomiting lasts more than 24 hours.
3. Call the local health department if the suspect food was served at a large gathering, from a restaurant or other food service facility, or if it is a commercial product.
4. Contact the FDA Consumer Food Information Line at 1-800-FDA-4010 if you have questions.

Practice Prevention
Practice safe food preparation and sanitation to prevent cross-contamination.
• Use separate knives and cutting boards for meats and vegetables.
• Wash every kitchen surface and utensil with hot soapy water or a bleach solution after food has been prepared using it.
• Use disposable paper towels instead of dish cloth.
• Replace sponges regularly, throw them in the dishwasher or boil them.
• Wash your hands well with soap and water after handling raw meat and eggs.
• Don’t leave cooked or perishable foods out at room temperature longer than two hours.
• Keep foods out of the danger zone of 40°F to 140°F. Between those two temperatures, bacteria multiply rapidly.
• Divide up leftover food and store it in shallow containers no more than two inches deep so it cools faster.
• Keep refrigerators at 40°F or lower and keep freezers at 0°F or lower.
• Use a meat thermometer to make sure meat is cooked thoroughly to 160°F or even better to 170°F. Poultry should be cooked to 180°F.
• Don’t wash poultry before cooking because that gives bacteria a chance to spread.
• Shellfish, especially oysters, are particularly dangerous when eaten raw.
• Wash fruits and vegetables under running water, preferably twice.
• If a food doesn’t look right or smell right or if it bulges, throw it out.

Dining Out Safely
Here are some tips for avoiding contaminated food when eating away from home.

• Avoid menu items that are made with raw or undercooked eggs, such as hollandaise sauce, Caesar salad, fresh mayonnaise, unless they were made using a pasteurized commercial egg product. Ask your server to ask the cook.
• If you’re in a city that requires restaurants to display their heath department ratings, eat only at “A-rated” or “90%+” establishments.
• Observe the cleanliness of your server’s hands. See if your food is being handled in a sanitary manner. Judge the tidiness of the whole restaurant, including the restroom. If the place is in poor shape, they may also have a problem following food safety standards.
• Monitor food temperature. If foods meant to be hot or cold are served to you lukewarm, send them back.
• Avoid eating salad mixtures such as pasta salad, potato salad or chicken salad, which are handled after they are prepared and may not have been stored at the correct temperatures. This is especially true at outdoor gatherings.

Observing safe food handling steps will go a long way to preventing unpleasant and even life-threatening foodborne illnesses.

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