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What Older Adults Should Know About Food Safety

Understanding the various aspects of food safety is key to staying healthy as we age.

We tend to go about our busy lives, not always paying attention to what we’re putting into our bodies. But being informed about food safety is important—particularly for populations who are more at risk of food poisoning, including older adults. By understanding why older adults are at risk, the types of foods that can be harmful, the symptoms of foodborne illness, how to handle a food safety emergency, and ways to prevent food poisoning, we can all do our part in keeping this vulnerable group safe. Why are older adults at risk?


Our immune systems weaken as we get older, leaving us more susceptible to foodborne illness, a serious public health concern that can be fatal. In its Food Safety guide, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recounts the experience of Diana, 64, who fell ill after eating grocery store–bought ground turkey. The next day, she wound up at urgent care and was hospitalized after waking up with an upset stomach and severe diarrhea.

As it turned out, Diana had contracted salmonella poisoning from the turkey and became severely dehydrated. “A couple of times the doctor thought I was going to die,” she says. “I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow. I was so sick, and I’m just lucky I lived through it.”1

The FDA notes that salmonella poisoning—just one type of foodborne illness—typically doesn’t require medical intervention. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for Diana and millions of other at-risk adults for whom foodborne illness presents a serious public health concern.

What foods are more likely to be contaminated and cause illness?

Foodborne illness is more likely in certain foods that, when raw, can carry harmful bacteria. These include:2

  • Meat such as beef or pork
  • Poultry such as chicken, turkey, and duck
  • Seafood and raw shellfish, including fish, shrimp, clams, oysters, and mussels
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Fruits and vegetables, including lettuce and leafy greens

In Case of Emergency

If you have a weakened immune system and think you might have contracted food poisoning—and are experiencing symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, or abdominal pain—follow these tips:1

  • Contact your healthcare provider right away.
  • Keep the possibly contaminated food separate for inspection, label it as dangerous, and put it in the freezer. Save any similar foods that you might suspect as well.
  • Try to recall as many details as possible, such as the specific food, time eaten, and when symptoms occurred. If you’re unsure, write down everything you ate and drank in the past week.
  • If you suspect you became sick from eating USDA-inspected eggs, meat, or poultry, contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If you became ill after eating at a restaurant, call your local health department.

Helping to Ensure Food Safety

Through health education and promotion, you can help lessen the probability of food poisoning. Remember these four tips:1

  • Clean: Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after handling food, going to the bathroom, changing diapers, and caring for pets. Thoroughly clean all surfaces, dishes, and utensils with soap and hot water. Rinse all fresh fruit and vegetables with water before handling.
  • Separate: Keep raw meat, poultry, shellfish, and eggs separate from other foods in your shopping cart, bags, and refrigerator.
  • Cook: Always follow instructions and cook food to the correct temperature.
  • Chill: Put any food at risk of contamination in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours of purchasing or cooking it.

Forty-eight million Americans become ill each year due to foodborne illnesses.3 If you’re passionate about ensuring the health and safety of others, even on a national or global scale, you may want to consider a career in public health and earn a degree in health education and promotion from Walden University. At Walden, you’ll gain the skills you need to work as a health educator in a variety of settings, including schools and universities, community agencies, local and regional health departments, hospitals, and more. Health educators take on a variety of roles, including analyzing data to identify gaps in public health information, shaping policy focused on prevention, and working to improve the health of at-risk populations.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an MS in Health Education and Promotion degree program online. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,