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Retirement Weekly: Food poisoning is more of a danger as we age — how to stay safe

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There’s a certain kind of persnickety person who is hyper aware of foodborne illness. You know the type.

They wash everything compulsively before eating it and throw away any scrap that touches the ground (even for an instant). They discard any food or drink after its “best by” date. Their kitchen counter smells of bleach because they’re always cleaning it.

You’re not that kind of person.

You occasionally eat sushi or hit the salad bar. You lick the bowl of raw cookie dough. You buy dented cans of soup (they’re marked down!).

If you’re older, you may want to take food safety more seriously.

“As we age, our immune system tends to weaken,” said Vanessa Coffman, Ph.D., director of the Alliance to Stop Foodborne Illness. “And the slower movement of food through our digestive system creates more time for bacteria to replicate.”

Specifically, we produce less gastric acid when we’re older. That leaves us more vulnerable to infectious organisms that we consume, because the acid kills them.

In addition, the liver and kidneys of older people may no longer perform as effectively in flushing foreign bacteria and toxins from the body. Individuals with cancer, diabetes or some autoimmune diseases can face a greater risk.

Overall, though, it’s still a relatively low risk. About 3,000 Americans die of foodborne illnesses every year. But 48 million people get sick—and many of them are seniors. 

There are certain foods that carry greater risk of bacteria, viruses or parasites. Examples include raw oysters, deli meats and uncooked fruits and vegetables. ​ ​But almost any food or drink can wind up in a recall, even products that you might assume are worry-free.

In early 2022, for example, an E. coli outbreak linked to frozen pizza made by Nestlé in France killed two children and sickened dozens of others. In the U.S., J.M. Smucker Co. recently recalled some Jif peanut butter products due to possible salmonella contamination.

Poor manufacturing controls, such as flour and wheat possibly contaminated during the milling process, may have led to the frozen pizza recall in France. That’s hardly a novel problem.

“We’ve seen E. coli in flour,” Coffman said. “Flour can contain pathogens. So be careful when handling flour or eggs when baking” and keep washing all surfaces as you assemble and prepare recipes.

So how can you shop smart—or dine smart at restaurants—to avoid getting food poisoning? There’s no easy answer.

“The things we worry about that cause foodborne illness are invisible to us,” said William Hallman, Ph.D., a professor in the department of human ecology at Rutgers University. “That makes it difficult to know whether an individual product on the shelf may pose a foodborne illness risk.”

He recommends a few general rules to improve food safety:

1. Cook certain foods (such as meat, poultry and eggs) to a safe minimum internal temperature to kill pathogens. Example: Reheat hot dogs or deli meats to 165°F or steaming hot.

2. Beware of raw and “ready-to-eat” foods. Examples: Uncooked bean sprouts, raw unpasteurized milk and juice, soft cheese, raw or smoked seafood such as lox.

3. Avoid products with broken seals or tears in the packaging, especially when shopping for raw meat, poultry, seafood or any “ready-to-eat” items such as luncheon meats or prepared salads.

To stay informed about food recalls, sign up to get recall notices in your area. To receive free notifications from Stop Foodborne Illness, a nonprofit public health organization, go to​ this site and sign up. ​ 

Older people on fixed incomes try to make their food last longer. So they may eat leftovers that are no longer safe (such foods should usually be discarded after three to four days) or consume store-bought items well beyond their expiration date.

“Many older consumers, especially who are food insecure, are loath to discard food,” Hallman said. “There’s a reluctance to discard food beyond their safe dates.”

He adds that older people might have aging refrigerators or freezers that operate less efficiently over time. Ideally, a fridge should be set at or below 40°F. Freezers should be set around 0°F.

If you love sushi or smoked salmon, you might feel a tad queasy as food safety experts issue warnings. But as long as you shop with vigilance and follow common-sense precautions, you don’t need to stress out.

“I’m over 60 and I know what all the rules are,” Hallman said. “And I violate them constantly.”

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