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Top Foods That Can Cause Food Poisoning

Foodborne illnesses from disease-causing germs pose greater danger as you age


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Even though we may have enjoyed the same foods throughout our lives, our bodies become more susceptible to food-related risks as we age. Once we hit 65, it’s even more important to pay attention to food safety because the likelihood of experiencing severe food poisoning increases, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns.​

"Older adults in general are more likely to have severe illness [from food poisoning] that could land them in the hospital,” says Patricia Griffin, M.D., chief of the CDC's Enteric Diseases Epidemiology branch, which tracks foodborne illnesses. Nearly half of people 65 and older with a confirmed foodborne illness caused by salmonellacampylobacter, listeria or E. coli end up hospitalized, according to the CDC.​

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​Top foods that caused illnesses 2009-2018

​"Many older adults are quite healthy and don't think of themselves as having increased risk,” she says. “But they should recognize that as we all age, our immune system becomes a little more sluggish, and we need to take more precautions to prevent ourselves from getting sick."​ 

spinner image a pie chart breaking down foods that cause food poisoning by percent with chicken the highest at twelve percent followed by pork at ten percent and beef at nine percent

​A top precaution from the CDC is to cook food until it reaches its safe internal temperature, to kill any harmful bacteria, viruses or parasites that may be present. Other safety measures include washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before preparing food, rinsing fresh produce under running water before eating it and avoiding cross-contamination in the kitchen — in particular, raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs — when preparing meals.​

Here are seven types of foods that the CDC warns can cause intestinal illness, along with the most common disease-causing germs associated with each and safety tips to avoid them.​ ​

1. Chicken, beef, pork and turkey

Undercooking and cross-contamination are the two biggest risks posed by meats. Wash your hands; keep raw meat away from other ingredients; and cook chicken, beef, pork and turkey to safe temperatures. The CDC recommends using a cooking thermometer, though Griffin acknowledges that not everyone has one or uses it regularly.​ ​

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Safe Minimum Cooking Temperatures

  • Ground beef, pork, veal, lamb: 160 degrees
  • Ground chicken, turkey: 165 degrees
  • Steaks, roasts, chops: 145 degrees
  • Poultry: 165 degrees 
  • Fresh pork, ham: 145 degrees
  • Precooked ham: 165 degrees
  • Egg dishes: 160 degrees
  • Leftovers, casseroles: 165 degrees
  • Fish with fins: 145 degrees

Source: Foodsafety.gov

Deli meatsDeli products may be contaminated with listeria, a bacteria that can spread quickly on equipment, surfaces, hands and the food itself. Simply tossing deli meats in the refrigerator won’t stop listeria from growing. The best way to make sure your deli meats, hot dogs and sausages are safe to eat is by heating them to 165°F, or until they are steaming hot.  ​

Pâté and meat spreads: Reach for shelf-stable meat spreads that have been treated with heat to kill any germs, making them a safer alternative to eat.    ​ ​ ​ ​

Common foodborne germsCampylobacter, Clostridium perfringens, E. coli, listeria, salmonella, Yersinia

Safety tips: Ignore recipes that advise rinsing raw meats with water. The practice doesn't make your food any safer, and splashed water can spread germs from the raw meat to other food, utensils and surfaces.​ ​Always make sure your meat is sufficiently cooked. Older adults who prefer the taste of rare beef or pork are taking a risk, Griffin says.​ ​Leftovers should be refrigerated at 40 degrees or colder within two hours of preparation. Large cuts of meat should be portioned into small quantities to cool fast enough and prevent bacteria from growing.​ ​

2. Fruits and vegetables

​Produce can pick up germs anywhere along the way, from the farm where it was grown to the store where it was sold — even from your kitchen counter once you get it home. Proper washing is the key to safety.​ ​

"On a per-serving basis, raw vegetables are not horribly risky except for certain ones, like sprouts,” Griffin says. “Vegetables and fruit are a really important part of a healthy diet, and there are so many wonderful ways to cook vegetables, and they are delicious."​ ​

Melons: A higher risk of listeria contamination exists in melons than in most fruits. Their low acidity allows them to be stored in the refrigerator for an extended period, creating an ideal environment for listeria to thrive.  

People are more likely to keep melons outside the refrigerator for a longer time and at a warmer temperature than appropriate, the CDC says. Be sure to eat freshly cut melon within a week.    ​ ​ ​ ​

Common foodborne germs: Salmonella, E. coli, listeria​ ​ 

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Safety tips: Before and after preparing any produce, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm soap and water. Cut away any damaged or bruised areas before preparing or eating.​

When washing produce, always use running water. Soaking may remove the germs initially, but the now-tainted water can recontaminate the fruits and vegetables as well as contaminate nearby surfaces. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't recommend using soap, detergent or commercial produce wash.​ ​

3. Milk and cheese products

Steer clear of unpasteurized milk and other dairy products because it hasn’t been heated to effectively kill harmful germs. Make sure to look for milk and dairy products that say “pasteurized” on the label. If in doubt, don’t buy it.

​"Unpasteurized milk is risky because if you make a mistake with one or a few cows, you may not just get that udder perfectly clean, and then you've contaminated that entire batch,” Griffin says.​ ​

Soft cheeses: Examples such as brie and queso fresco are safest when heated to an internal temperature of 165°F or until steaming hot. Even if it’s made with pasteurized milk, soft cheese can still be contaminated during the cheese-making process. The high moisture, low salt and acidity levels support the growth of listeria.    ​

Deli-sliced cheese: Even when it’s made from pasteurized milk, cheese sliced at a deli can pose a risk because it might come into contact with listeria, just like deli salads and meats. To stay safe, heat sliced deli cheese to 165°F to kill potential pathogens.    ​

Hard cheese: Due to their low moisture, high salt and acidity, hard cheeses such as cheddar and Parmesan, as well as processed varieties like cottage cream, string, feta and mozzarella, do not require heating.    ​ ​ ​ ​

Common foodborne germsBrucellacampylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, listeria, salmonella​ ​

Safety tips: If you have raw milk, you can pasteurize it at home by heating it to 165 degrees for 15 seconds using an oven or double boiler. You can also eat raw cheese safely if you cook it thoroughly.​

4. Eggs

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Why Older Adults Are More at Risk for Food Poisoning ​

  • The body’s immune response to disease grows weaker. ​
  • The gastrointestinal tract holds onto food for a longer period of time, allowing bacteria to grow.
  • The liver and kidneys may not properly rid foreign bacteria and toxins from the body. ​
  • The stomach may not produce enough acid to help reduce the amount of bacteria in the intestinal tract.
  • Conditions such as diabetes and cancer may also increase a person’s risk. ​ ​

Source: FoodSafety.gov

Eggs usually get contaminated when a hen has an infection around the tissues of its ovaries, which can introduce salmonella into its egg. Eggs are less likely to be contaminated today, though, than they were in the 1980s and early 1990s because producers have worked to decrease infections that cause the bacteria.​ 

​"Most batches of eggs are going to be completely safe,” Griffin says. “But some batches are going to be from a chicken that was stressed enough that salmonella was coming out as they laid their egg, and your risk of getting sick is going to be increased."​ ​

Common foodborne germs: Salmonella​ ​

Safety tips: Avoid foods that contain raw or undercooked eggs, like handmade (not commercially bottled) Caesar salad dressing, eggnog and raw dough. Cook eggs until the yolks and whites are firm, and keep them refrigerated at a minimum of 40 degrees.​ ​

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5. Seafood and raw shellfish

Vibrio are bacteria that live in healthy seawater, so shellfish containing vibrio aren't technically contaminated. Still, the bacteria can lead to an infection called vibriosis, which poses significant health risks to those 65 and older. Contaminated shellfish can also contain norovirus, which can cause symptoms in older adults that may lead to dehydration.​

"Major illnesses that we see are really from oysters, because people like to eat them raw,” she says. Some restaurants may offer oysters that have been treated to reduce the levels of vibrio in them, but this precaution doesn't necessarily remove all of the harmful germs.​ ​Undercooked seafood typically causes people to have a diarrheal illness, which can be especially serious for those with conditions such as liver disease. In these instances, bacteria can get into the bloodstream and require hospitalization.​ ​

Sushi and ceviche: Foods that contain raw or undercooked fish should be avoided. Although they are not a major cause of bacterial illnesses, when eaten raw, fish can contain parasites that can make you sick, Griffin warns. A safer choice is eating fish that has been cooked to an internal temperature of 145°F.   ​

Lox, kippered fish, jerky: Smoked seafood (unless it is cooked in a dish) should be avoided. This is because refrigerated smoked fish is typically cold smoked, meaning it is not cooked to a temperature that would kill listeria. For a safer alternative, buy smoked fish sealed that comes in an airtight package that doesn’t need to be refrigerated until it is opened.   ​

Shellfish: Before cooking, the CDC recommends discarding any shellfish that are already open. Then boil them until the shells open and keep them in the water another three to five minutes, or place them in a steamer over steaming water and cook for four to nine minutes. Throw out any shellfish that do not open from cooking.   ​ ​ ​

Common foodborne germsNorovirus, vibrio​ ​

Safety tips: Cook seafood to 145 degrees, and heat leftovers to 165 degrees. Always make sure to cover any wounds that may come in contact with raw seafood, and wash your hands before and after handling it.​ ​

6. Sprouts

​Eating raw or lightly cooked sprouts of any kind — such as alfalfa, mung bean or clover — can lead to food poisoning from harmful germs. The reason is that the seed itself is contaminated; yet there's so little contamination on the seed that, even if you culture it, it can't be detected. But as the seed (cultivated in warm, humid conditions) provides nutrition to grow the sprout it is also encouraging bacteria to grow.​ ​

"So as the sprout is sprouting, not only is the sprout happily growing, bacteria are happily growing,” Griffin explains.​ 

Common foodborne germsE. coli, listeriasalmonella​ ​

Safety tips: If you eat sprouts, cook them thoroughly; otherwise, avoid them.​ ​

7. Raw flour

Raw flour is not treated to kill germs that may have contaminated the grains while in the field or during the production process. Germs are killed when food made with the flour is cooked properly.​ ​

Note: Some companies make ready-to-eat cookie dough that has been made with pasteurized eggs and heat-treated flour. These products are safe to eat. ​ ​

Common foodborne germsE. coli, salmonella​ ​

Safety tips: Never eat raw dough or batter, and make sure to clean off all surfaces that the raw flour may have come in contact with.​​

Editor's note: This story, originally published Sept. 28, 2022, has been updated to reflect new information.

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