Factors that might increase your risk for food poisoning

A foodborne illness can affect anyone who eats food contaminated by bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins, or other substances. The actual number of those who succumb to food sickness is unknown, but a 2011 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, estimated that one in six Americans (or, roughly 48 million) get sick each year. Of those, 128,000 wind up hospitalized and 3,000 die from the illness.

a man holds his aching stomach, with food on a table in the background. [credit: pxhere.com]But, who is at an increased risk? There are certain populations who are at a higher risk, such as:

  • People age 65 years or older
  • Children under the age of 5
  • People with a weakened immune system (autoimmune diseases, HIV, diabetes, liver and kidney disease, alcoholism, other chronic diseases, and/or receiving chemotherapy or radiation)
  • Women who are pregnant

We should realize that people react differently to foodborne bacteria and contaminated food. One person might show few or even no symptoms while another might need to go to the hospital. The reaction depends on many factors, like the type of bacteria or toxin, how much of the food was contaminated, how much contaminated food was eaten, and the person’s susceptibility.

Before we go any further, let’s clarify that most bacteria will not harm you! The CDC identifies 15 pathogens as responsible for more than 95 percent of illnesses and deaths from foodborne illness in the United States. And, we know that some bacteria are essential in the fermentation process used to make yogurt, vinegar, some cheeses as well as other foods. Also, friendly bacteria, including those in probiotics, are essential for our gut health.

So, how can we prevent a foodborne illness? The simple act of washing your hands for 20 seconds with soap and warm or even cold water before, during and after food preparation is the first step. I’ve written many blogs on the safe handling of foods, but here is a reminder:

  1. Clean: Wash your hands, and food preparation surfaces before food preparation. Wash utensils, cutting boards with hot soapy water. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water before cutting or eating.
  2. Separate and don’t cross-contaminate: Keep raw meats, poultry, seafood separated. Use two different cutting boards. One for raw meats and the other for fresh fruits, vegetables, cutting bread, etc.
  3. Cook: Food is not safe to eat if the internal temperature is not high enough to kill harmful germs that will make you ill. Use a food thermometer to determine the internal temperature of the food. Not sure of the internal temperature?
    • Whole cuts of beef, veal, lamb, and pork, including fresh ham: 145 degrees Fahrenheit (then allow the meat to rest for 3 minutes before carving or eating)
    • Fish with fins: 145 F or cook until the flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork
    • Ground meats, such as beef and pork: 160 F
    • All poultry, including ground chicken and turkey: 165 F
    • Leftovers and casseroles: 165 F
  4. Chill: Bacteria multiplies rapidly especially if a food item is left out at room temperature. Never leave perishable food out for more than two hours if indoors; no more than one hour if exposed to 90 F or above. Your refrigerator should be set between 35-40 F and your freezer at 0 F. Only thaw food in the refrigerator or in the microwave.

To learn more about food safety and your risk, visit the CDC food safety risk webpage and FightBac.org (also known as the Partnership for Food Safety Education).


Maria Portelos-Rometo is a UF/IFAS Extension Agent at Sarasota County. She specializes in Family and Consumer Sciences.
Posted: June 27, 2024

Category: Food Safety, Health & Nutrition, Work & Life
Tags: Bacteria, Food, Food Safety, Foodborne Illness, Health, Pgm_FCS, Safety

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