U.S. Food and Drug Administration / Center for Food Safety and
 Applied Nutrition / May 1999
Seniors and
Food Safety

Preventing Foodborne Illness

What is Foodborne Illness?
Why are Seniors At-Risk for Foodborne Illness?
What's a Senior to Eat?
To Market, To Market
Four Simple Steps to Preparing Food at Home
Eating Out & Bringing Food Home
Taking Care of Infants and Young Children
Can Your Kitchen Pass the Food Safety Test?

What is Foodborne Illness?

Fight BAC! Right now, there may be an invisible enemy ready to strike. He's called BAC (bacteria) and he can make you sick. In fact, even though you can't see BAC—or smell him, or feel him—he and millions more like him may have invaded the food you eat.

The illness caused by bacteria or other pathogens on food, often shows itself as flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever, so many people may not recognize the illness is caused by bacteria or other pathogens on food.

Thousands of types of bacteria are naturally present in our environment. Not all bacteria cause disease in humans. For example, some bacteria are used beneficially in making cheese and yogurt.

Bacteria that cause disease are called pathogens. When certain pathogens enter the food supply, they can cause foodborne illness. Only a few types cause millions of cases of foodborne illness each year. Most cases of foodborne illness can be prevented.

Campylobacter jejuni
Listeria monocytogenes
E. coli O157:H7
Escherichia coli

A Lifetime of Changes in Food Production

It used to be that food was produced close to where people lived. Many people shopped daily, and prepared and ate their food at home. Eating in restaurants was saved for special occasions. Oh how the times have changed.

Turning the tables on foodborne illness requires responding to a complex web of trends:

  • new, more virulent, more drug-resistant pathogens are finding their way onto new foods;
  • there are changes in how food is processed; the food we eat today is produced around the world;
  • we're eating more meals outside the home–40 percent of the American food dollar today is spent in restaurants paying others to prepare our meals;
  • there is a growing senior population whose immune systems cannot fight off the harmful bacteria, which makes them more vulnerable to foodborne illness.


The FDA Food Information and Seafood Hotline, tollfree, at 1-800-FDA-4010. The hotline offers information to consumers in English and Spanish, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Public affairs specialists are available from noon to 4 p.m., EDT, Monday through Friday, to answer specific questions.

The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline can be reached, tollfree, by calling 1-800-535-4555. This hotline, staffed by home economists and dieticians, will answer questions regarding the safe storage,handling, and preparation of meat and poultry products from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., EDT, Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available at all times.

Now You Know—Bad Bacteria May Be in Your Good Food

Bacteria may be present on products when you purchase them. Plastic-wrapped boneless chicken breasts and ground meat, for example, were once part of live chickens or cattle. Raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs are not sterile. Neither is produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts and melons.

Foods, including safely cooked, ready-to-eat foods, can become cross-contaminated with bacteria transferred from raw products, meat juices or other contaminated products, or from persons with poor personal hygiene.

That's why care must be taken throughout the food production, distribution and consumption chain.

Just the Facts—Seniors Are at Risk for Foodborne Illness

Data on foodborne illnesses collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clearly show that those who are age 50 and older suffer more severe complications from foodborne illness that do those who are younger. These complications include more hospitalizations and an increased incidence of death. Why? Check out Why Are Seniors At-Risk for Foodborne Illness?"

Some of these harmful foodborne bacteria have been making news lately. You may have heard or read about bacteria such as Campylobacter in chicken, E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef, Salmonella enteritidis in eggs, and Vibrio vulnificus in oysters. Illnesses resulting from these bacteria occurred because the consumers either ate the foods raw or undercooked (thorough cooking kills the bacteria) or the foods were not handled in a safe manner. For more information on the safe handling of food, check out What's a Senior to Eat, To Market to Market, and What's Cooking?

Next: Why are Seniors At-Risk for Foodborne Illness

Additional information on Foodborne Pathogens (Bad Bug Book)

running faucet Clean separate cutting boards for meats and vegetables Separate thermometer Cook refrigerator Chill

FDA/Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, May 1999
Developed in cooperation with AARP
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