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Foodborne Illness: Who’s at Risk?

Foodborne illness outbreaks and food recalls are so common today, it can be hard to sort out the facts. What exactly is the risk of foodborne  illness for me—or people I care about?

New research published in the Journal of Foodborne Pathogens and Disease (Nov. 9, 2011) spells it out loud and clear: 1 in 5.

In developed nations like the U.S. and U.K., about 1 in 5 people is at high risk for foodborne illness. What does that mean? When exposed to viruses or bacteria in food, they’re especially likely to get sick.

Who gets foodborne illness most easily?

You may know—or easily guess—some of the list. Food safety experts call them highly susceptible populations: the very young, the very old, pregnant women, and anyone whose immune system is weak. The very young have immature immune systems and lower body weight, not to mention less awareness and control over food safety risks. The elderly also tend to have weaker immune systems. With aging, other factors often come into play, such as poor nutrition, dehydration, or chronic illness.

The new research reminds us of others at risk: someone on dialysis, someone undergoing cancer treatment, someone with diabetes, to name a few. Now, what about people taking prescription medications?

Did you know anyone on antacids (especially proton-pump inhibitor drugs) is more susceptible? That’s because the drugs reduce stomach acid. (Acid plays a role in eliminating some bacteria in the stomach.) Another big category is cortisone drugs—often taken for inflammatory conditions like asthma or immune system diseases.

Salmonella – a special case

Salmonella is of particular concern because it causes the highest number of hospitalizations and deaths, according to the CDC.  With the majority of Salmonella enteritidis illnesses (4 out of 5) tracing back to raw or undercooked eggs, pasteurized eggs provide a strong safeguard.

Salmonella is the only bacterial foodborne illness that is still on the rise, according to FoodNet data.( FoodNet is a surveillance network that tracks trends on foodborne illness.)

Pasteurized eggs: an example of choosing safe foods

The researchers who identified the 1-in-5 risk suggest a simple strategy—Replace high-risk foods with safer ones. So, for foods that use raw or undercooked eggs, such as Caesar salad dressings, homemade raw cookie dough, and homemade eggnog, they suggest pasteurized eggs/egg products as the safe choice.

Eating out? They advise, “Ask if pasteurized eggs were used.�?

Speaking of numbers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 1 in 6 Americans gets foodborne illness every year. Many people are at heightened risk, but all of us are at risk every day. Simple steps can go a long way in protecting everyone from foodborne illness related to Salmonella and eggs.