10 Myths and Facts About Seniors and Foodborne Illness

Foodborne illness is caused when harmful microorganisms—mostly bacteria, but sometimes viruses, parasites, molds or toxins—get into our bodies by means of the food or liquids we consume. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 76 million cases of "food poisoning" in the U.S. each year—including 5,000 fatal cases.

Being informed about food safety is the first step to protecting yourself...because when it comes to foodborne illness, what you don't know can hurt you! Read on to find out how much you know about foodborne illness, including the special concerns of seniors.

Myth #1: Only small children are at-risk for severe cases of foodborne illness.

Fact: For most people, the symptoms of food poisoning, while definitely unpleasant, are short-term and not life-threatening. But certain populations (small children, older adults, people with diabetes and AIDS) are at higher risk of hospitalization, permanent health problems, and even death. As we grow older, we are at greater risk because of...

  • Decreased immune system efficiency, so we can't fight off bacteria as effectively as when we were younger
  • Reduced amount of stomach acid, which allows more bacteria to survive in the digestive tract
  • Loss of vision and sense of taste, so we are less likely to notice if food is spoiled

Myth #2: Stomach ache, vomiting, diarrhea and fever are usually caused by "the flu."

Fact: Influenza ("the flu") is a respiratory ailment, including sore throat and sometimes a runny nose. Some people erroneously use the term "stomach flu" when they actually mean gastrointestinal (digestive) illness: nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramping and diarrhea. The germs that cause gastrointestinal illness most often enter the body through contaminated food or water.

Myth #3: Foodborne illness always strikes within minutes of consuming contaminated food.

Fact: Sometimes, food poisoning symptoms are obvious within 20 minutes. But in many more cases, it takes days or even weeks for symptoms to appear. The effects of foodborne illness most often last for a day or two, but can persist for over a week.

Myth #4: Only meat and dairy products can harbor harmful bacteria.

Fact: Undercooked or raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs are indeed the most common culprits in food poisoning, because they provide the best environment in which harmful germs can flourish. But other foods can also harbor bacteria that can make you sick. These include fresh fruits and vegetables, sprouts, and unpasteurized juice. When purchasing and preparing food, take these sensible precautions:

  • At the grocery store, inspect meat packages for tears, eggs for cracked shells, all products for expired "sell-by" dates.
  • Wash hands before preparing food.
  • Use only acrylic or plastic cutting boards, and clean thoroughly with hot water and soap after use—or better yet, clean in the dishwasher.
  • Cook meats to the recommended temperature (for example, beef to at least 160°, poultry to at least 180°, fish to at least 140°).
  • Wash fresh produce.
  • Purchased pasteurized juices only (check for a warning label if you're not sure).

Myth #5: So long as you cook meat, poultry and seafood to the recommended temperature, you won't come into contact with harmful bacteria.

Fact: Proper cooking is important. But one big culprit in food poisoning is cross-contamination: when the juices from uncooked meat come into contact with uncooked foods. It can begin right at the grocery store, if fresh produce and raw meat juices touch in the shopping cart. And give your food preparation practices a checkup. What about that cutting board? When you were done working on the raw chicken, did you then use the same surface to prepare a fresh salad? And last time you barbecued, were you careful to you place the cooked burgers onto a clean plate—not the one on which you carried the raw meat?

Myth #6: Let hot foods cool down thoroughly before putting them away, so you don't damage your refrigerator.

Fact: The claim that hot food can damage your refrigerator is an old story left over from "icebox" days. Improper food storage is a major factor in the growth of harmful bacteria—and every minute cooked food is left at room temperature allows more bacteria to grow. So it's important to refrigerate or freeze leftovers as soon as possible. The FDA also recommends consuming leftover prepared foods within 3-5 days. And be sure your refrigerator temperature is set at 40° or lower.

Myth #7: The best way to thaw frozen foods is to set them out on the kitchen counter.

Fact: You should never defrost food at room temperature. This is because the portions that thaw first then are vulnerable to bacteria growth—and as the FDA tells us, bacteria in room temperature food can double every 20 minutes. Instead, thaw food in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave using the "defrost" setting.

Myth #8: Microwave ovens have special germ-killing powers.

Fact: Not to get too technical about it, but microwave energy itself doesn't kill germs—it is the heat generated by the waves that destroy harmful organisms, the same as with a conventional oven. Remember also that microwave ovens may heat foods unevenly, so it's important to stir foods once or more during the heating process. Turning the container several times during cooking (or using a carousel) helps heat reach all parts of the food.

Myth #9: All foods, if properly prepared, are safe for older adults.

Fact: The USDA recommends that seniors and persons with conditions that weaken the immune system avoid certain foods:

  • Any dishes with raw or undercooked meat or seafood (for example: sushi, steak tartare, raw oysters, hamburgers cooked rare)
  • Unpasteurized milk, and soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk
  • Foods with raw or undercooked eggs (such as Caesar salad, unbaked cookie dough, homemade mayonnaise, eggnog)
  • Raw sprouts (alfalfa, bean, etc.)
  • Fresh-squeezed, unpasteurized fruit juices

Your healthcare provider can give you more information about the foods that are safe for you.

Myth #10: Restaurant and takeout food are always safe, because restaurants are inspected by the Health Department.

Fact: Though occasional outbreaks of illness are traced back to pathogens in restaurant or deli food, most eating establishments in the U.S. follow proper food handling procedures. But remember: take-out food or "doggy bag" safety is mostly up to you! Eating only until you are full and bringing leftovers home for a later meal is a great idea—for your waistline and your wallet. But only consume leftover food if you can refrigerate it promptly (within two hours, less in warm weather).

Turning Fear Into Action

Fresh meats and produce contain so many of the vitamins and other nutrients that are vital for healthy aging! So don't avoid these foods. Instead, take basic precautions that lessen the likelihood of encountering harmful organisms that can make for a miserable—even life-threatening—few days. Safe food handling practices are the key to ensuring that the food you eat is safe and healthy.

If You Think You Might Be Suffering from Foodborne Illness...

Contact your healthcare provider. Treatment will usually focus on rehydration—having you consume plenty of water and other liquids to replace fluids lost through vomiting or diarrhea, sometimes intravenously if the case is severe. Your healthcare provider may also wish to administer tests to rule out other serious illnesses with similar symptoms.

For More Information

FoodSafety.gov, sponsored by a group of U.S. and state government food safety departments, offers information about food safety for older adults.