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Summer means picnics at the park and backyard barbecues. Although everyone wants their fill of hamburgers and potato salad, food can be easily contaminated by harmful bacteria and viruses if not stored or served properly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 million people each year get sick by eating contaminated food, and adults 65 and older are at a higher risk of hospitalization and death from foodborne illness.

Signs of Foodborne Illness

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Foodborne illness, or food poisoning, is any illness that is caused by the food you eat. Symptoms can occur within 24 hours of eating contaminated food, but sometimes, they don’t show up until even days or weeks later. Common symptoms of foodborne illness include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and fever. For seniors whose bodies are less able to combat bacteria, the symptoms can include more severe illness — or even death.

Older Adults and Food Safety

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Although people of every age can get food poisoning, food safety is particularly important for adults 65 and older because they are more at risk. This increased risk is due to normal age-related changes in the body. For example, the GI tract holds on to food for a longer period of time, allowing bacteria to grow, and the liver and kidneys might not properly rid the body of foreign bacteria and toxins. Additionally, the immune system is naturally weakened by age, so people with one or more chronic conditions have an increased susceptibility to foodborne illness.

What You Can Do

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Safe food handling can help reduce your risk of getting sick from food. According to, older adults should always follow these four steps:

  • Clean: Wash hands with warm, soapy water before preparing food. To prevent cross contamination, wash hands, utensils, cutting boards and other work surfaces after contact with raw meat and poultry.
  • Separate: Separate raw meat and poultry from ready-to-eat foods. Use separate cutting boards and plates for produce and for meat, poultry, seafood and eggs.
  • Cook: The bacteria that cause food poisoning multiply quickest in the “danger zone” — between 40 F and 140 F. Use a food thermometer to ensure that food reaches a safe internal temperature: Hamburgers should be cooked to 160 F, steaks to 145 F, chicken breast to 165 F and fish to 145 F.
  • Chill: Never leave perishable items, such as meat, cheese or mayonnaise, out of refrigeration for more than two hours. Chill raw meat and poultry as well as cooked leftovers promptly.

Safe food handling is important for everyone but especially older adults. Practicing the safeguards necessary to avoid foodborne illness is the best way to stay healthy.

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