Food Safety for Those at Greater Risk for Food Poisoning

Reviewed by Sarah Klemm, RDN, CD, LDN
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Food poisoning (also known as foodborne illness or foodborne disease) is caused by eating contaminated food. It causes an estimated 48 million illnesses (1 out of 6 Americans), 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year in the United States. Common bacteria that causes food poisoning include Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli. Symptoms of food poisoning are similar to those of the flu (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea) so many people may not recognize that they are suffering from a case of food poisoning.

While food poisoning can affect anyone who eats foods contaminated by foodborne pathogens, certain populations are more vulnerable to food poisoning and can be at far greater risk of developing serious illness with long-term effects or even death if contracting food poisoning. Those high risk groups include children younger than 5 years, pregnant women, adults older than 65, and people with weakened immune systems and chronic illness including diabetes, kidney disease, HIV/AIDS and some types of cancer.

If you're at a higher risk of serious side effects from food poisoning, or if you're preparing food for those who are, practice the following safety tips to help reduce the risk of food poisoning as you shop, cook and eat.

At the Store: Food safety begins with food selection while grocery shopping
Check food labels for key words and foods and packaging for signs of damage

  • When buying fruit juice from the refrigerated section of the store, be sure that the juice label says “pasteurized.”
  • Never buy food that is displayed in unsafe or unclean conditions.
  • Make sure canned goods are free of dents, cracks or bulging lids.
  • Choose produce that is free of bruises or noticeable damage.
  • Avoid foods containing raw or undercooked meat, seafood or egg products, like Caesar salad dressing, sushi or ceviche.

At the store, choose perishable items such as dairy, meat, poultry and seafood at the end of the shopping trip.

  • Make sure dairy products and meat are cold to the touch and packaging on meat is tightly sealed.
  • Wrap each package of meat in a separate plastic bag to prevent juices from dripping and place at the bottom of the shopping cart.
  • Be sure to refrigerate or freeze perishable foods within 2 hours (1 hour if above 90°F outside) after visiting the store.

In the Kitchen: Many cases of food poisoning can be traced to improper food handling
Wash hands and kitchen surfaces often.

  • Wash hands often, including before, during and after meal preparation.
  • Wash hands with clean water and soap for at least 20 seconds.
  • Clean all kitchen surfaces and utensils including countertops, refrigerators and microwaves.

Rinse fresh produce before use.

  • Rinse all fresh produce with water before use. Scrub firm fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those whose skins and rinds aren’t eaten (such as bananas and oranges).
  • Clean can lids before opening to prevent dirt and bacteria from entering the food, too..

Keep ready-to-eat foods separate from raw meats, poultry, seafood and eggs.

  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils and counters tops with hot soapy water between the preparation of raw meat, poultry and seafood products and any other ready-to-eat foods.
  • Prevent cross-contamination by using two cutting boards: one solely for raw meat, poultry and seafood; the other for ready-to-eat foods like breads and vegetables.

Cook food to proper temperatures

  • Cook food to proper internal temperatures and use a food thermometer to check. A food thermometer is the only reliable way to determine if cooked foods are done. 
  • Reheat hot dogs, luncheon meats (cold cuts), fermented and dry sausage, and other deli-style meat and poultry products until steaming hot. Although pre-cooked, they can become contaminated with harmful organisms after they have been processed and packaged.

Storage: How you store food is just as important as how you shop for it and prepare it
Refrigerate perishable foods promptly at or below 40°F or freeze at or below 0°F.

  • Refrigerate or freeze foods within 2 hours of cooking or purchasing (1 hour if above 90°F) to slow the growth of bacteria and reduce your risk of food poisoning.
  • Use a refrigerator thermometer to ensure your fridge and freezer are at the right temperature.
  • Use the refrigerator/freezer storage chart or the Is My Food Safe? app to check the shelf life of a food item.
  • Store leftovers in shallow covered containers and consume within three to four days
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Eating Out: Don’t be afraid to ask how foods are prepared
When eating out, avoid foods that carry a higher risk for food poisoning

  • Ask how the food is prepared and make sure it doesn't contain uncooked eggs, sprouts, meat, poultry or seafood.
  • Request meats to be cooked well-done and if served rare, politely send it back.
  • When in doubt, avoid foods that usually contain raw or undercooked eggs like hollandaise, homemade mayonnaise and Caesar salad dressing and some desserts like chocolate mousse and tiramisu. Do not eat raw shellfish, oysters on the half shell, raw clams, sushi, sashimi, and lightly steamed seafood such as mussels and snails. See a full list of foods to avoid here.
  • If you plan to take leftovers home, refrigerate perishable foods as soon as possible – and always within 2 hours (or 1 hour if above 90°F).

If you think you have contracted food poisoning, contact your health care provider.

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