How to protect vulnerable populations from foodborne illness

By Adam Ghering

September is Food Safety Education Month. It's also an important time to note that certain individuals, such as older adults and children under 5, are at an increased risk for foodborne illness. The good news is that foodborne illness is preventable and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is researching how individuals at home can decrease their risk of becoming ill.

A recent observational study completed by the USDA illustrates how individuals can inadvertently make their foods dangerous to eat. During the study, participants prepared a meal consisting of turkey burgers and a chef salad. Unfortunately, many participants didn’t properly wash their hands, or didn’t even attempt to do so, when it was necessary to control bacteria transfer from the raw turkey to other surfaces. This ineffective handwashing led to bacteria cross-contaminating 5 percent of participants' ready-to-eat chef salads.

Any amount of illness causing bacteria on ready-to-eat foods is a health concern, but it is of major concern for older adults. This is because nearly half of people 65 and older who have lab-confirmed cases of Salmonella become hospitalized. To prevent illness and hospitalization, the USDA recommends following steps:

1. Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often, especially if they come in contact with raw meat or poultry. Wash hands for 20 seconds and dry with a clean towel.

2. Separate: Keep raw meat and poultry separate from ready to eat foods.

3. Cook: Use a food thermometer to verify meat and poultry have reached a safe internal temperature:

  • Beef, pork, lamb and veal (steaks, roasts and chops): 145 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Ground meats: 160 degrees
  • Whole poultry, poultry breasts and ground poultry: 165 degrees

4. Chill: Refrigerate all perishable foods within two hours after eating.

To learn more about key food safety practices and at-risk groups, visit Foodsafety.gov, follow @USDAFoodSafety on Twitter or like Facebook.com/FoodSafety.gov. Individuals with questions about food safety can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist at AskKaren.gov, available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mountain Time, Monday through Friday, in English or Spanish. If you have questions about storage times for food or beverages, download USDA’s FoodKeeper application for Android and iOS devices.

Adam Ghering is a public affairs specialist for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.