Protect Seniors from Food Borne Illness: Keep It Off the Plate!

A recent tragedy occurred, taking the life of four seniors in a facility in California after they ingested toxic mushrooms.

This could happen to anyone who is not aware of the deadly consequences of food borne illness, especially for fragile seniors in our care, and doesn’t take appropriate preventive steps.

Unfortunately, a food service worker trained to prepare food for the aging residents in her facility decided to pick wild mushrooms growing on the property and feed them to everyone in the facility. Unfortunately, the mushrooms were poisonous and killed four of the seniors and made others ill, including the cook.

What is Food Borne Illness?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a food borne illness is a common public health threat, especially for vulnerable members of the population, including seniors, immune compromised people, infants, children and pregnant women. People over 50 are at a much greater risk of hospitalization and even death following a food borne illness.

Food borne illness comes from eating and drinking contaminated food. 1 in 6 Americans will be affected each year – that is 48 million people!  The unfortunate truth is that food borne illness is preventable.

Our food and beverages can be harmed by many different types of contaminants, such as toxins, chemicals, foreign particles, or pathogens such as bacteria, virus, microbes and parasites, causing a number of different types of illnesses. We hear frequently of salmonella, listeria, botulism, E coli, Norovirus, staph aureus, giardia and campylobacter.

We become infected through our gastrointestinal system after eating contaminated foods, resulting in nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. These symptoms can become severe, leading to hospitalization, dehydration and even death.

Particular foods are more at risk for contamination. They include raw foods such as meats, poultry, unpasteurized milk, raw eggs and shellfish; unwashed fruits and vegetables; improperly handled foods; and unpasteurized fruit juice. Safe food handling practices will help prevent contamination.

Avoid Eating Contaminated Foods

  1. Wash your hands and all food preparation surfaces before, during and after use.
  2. Cook foods thoroughly using a thermometer to be sure safe internal temperature is reached to kill bacteria. Cooks eggs until yolks are firm. Thaw meats and poultry safely – not on the counter.
  3. Separate at-risk foods to prevent cross contamination. Use different cutting boards for meats/poultry and fruits/vegetables. Keep knives separate and clean surfaces thoroughly. Use new platters and utensils for raw and cooked meats. Discard marinades from raw meats.
  4. Keep your foods properly chilled. Store leftovers quickly. Get foods in refrigerator quickly after purchase. Put large amounts into smaller containers so they will cool down quickly.
  5. Clean all your produce and discard outer leaves. Don’t put unwashed produce on your cutting board. Wash melons and other produce before cutting as the knife could spread bacteria from the skin into the fruit.
  6. Don’t prepare food if you have a communicable disease.
  7. If you are taking meals or treats to a senior (yours or others) in a facility, don’t transport foods for long periods without maintaining a proper temperature or reheating before eating. Be very careful with the foods you share with seniors in a facility if you are not familiar with the seniors, not only due to food contamination but also allergy concerns and choking hazards of which you may not be aware. Always ask before offering seniors in a facility foods you bring from home.
  8. Always reheat leftovers thoroughly and test internal temperatures. Microwave all foods thoroughly to a temperature of 165 degrees.
  9. Store cleaning products away from foods to prevent unintentional contamination.
  10. When in doubt, throw it out!

Treating Food Borne Illness in Your Senior Loved One**

  • The most effective way to treat an illness is to prevent it from occurring so follow the guidelines above especially when giving food to seniors in your home, in a facility or even in a restaurant.
  • Treat the symptoms as they appear. Each person will be affected differently depending on the type of bacteria or other contaminant.
  • Replace lost fluids by providing additional fluids and electrolyte replacements.
  • If diarrhea is severe, use solutions such as Ceralyte*, Pedialyte* or Oralyte* to prevent dehydration.
  • Some medications can reduce the symptoms of diarrhea  but do not take if fever or bloody stools are present.

**Contact your doctor for medical treatment advice and appropriate medications for symptom management.

Preventing food contamination is in our hands. Learning about safe food handling is important for our families and especially our seniors.

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