Click here to print page

Food Safety High-Risk Groups

Marshalee Valentine

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Each week we explore different areas of food safety and management of food safety hazards at different levels to reduce the likelihood of cross-contamination at different points in the production and supply chain. If you can recall, food poisoning or other food-borne illnesses can arise from contamination of our food with harmful organisms such as salmonella, E.coli and listeria. However, while everyone is susceptible to food-borne illnesses, there are certain high-risk groups that we must take particular note of when processing, preparing and handling food.

According to the US FDA, people who are at higher risk for developing significant food-borne illnesses are usually those who have underdeveloped or compromised immune systems. Members of the group include pregnant women, the elderly, and children under the age of six and people who suffer with chronic illnesses or immune system disorders.

During pregnancy, some changes occur that may alter the mother's immune system, which makes pregnant women more vulnerable to food-borne illnesses. Additionally, the foetus may also be affected as harmful bacteria may pass through the placenta and infect the unborn baby; this may eventually lead to premature delivery, miscarriage or illness of the newborn baby. The immune system of children under six meanwhile is still undergoing development, which means they are also more susceptible to food-borne illnesses.

The elderly are also a very sensitive group, as digestive systems tend to become more sensitive as we age. Our bodies are not able to rid themselves of harmful bacteria and pathogens as efficiently, due to the production of less stomach acid. Consequently, the stomach lining will become more delicate along with being more sensitive to irritation, as we are unable to effectively reduce the amount of bacteria in our intestinal tracts. Subsequently, bacteria can sneak past our stomach and into the digestive tract, where it can evolve into food poisoning.

Many older adults have also been diagnosed with one or more chronic conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer, or cardiovascular disease, which require some form of medication. The disease itself and/or the medications may also weaken the immune system. Similarly, persons with illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, cancer and other diseases listed above have weakened immune systems and are also at high risk for illnesses from food-borne pathogens.

While a supplier or manufacturer may not know the health status of their consumers, it is important that consumers take the responsibility of monitoring what they, or their loved ones, consume based on health status and risk levels. If you are on the list of high-risk personnel, below are a few of the foods recommended by the US FDA that you should avoid:

• Raw or undercooked meat, fish, seafood or poultry.

• Raw shellfish (including oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops) and their juices.

• Unpasteurised (raw) milk and products made with raw milk, like yogurt and cheese.

• Soft cheeses made from unpasteurised milk, such as feta, brie, and Mexican-style cheeses.

• Raw or undercooked eggs or foods containing raw or undercooked eggs, including certain homemade salad dressings (such as Caesar salad dressing), homemade cookie dough and cake batters, and homemade eggnog.

• Unwashed fresh vegetables, including lettuce/salads.

• Unpasteurised fruit or vegetable juices (these juices will carry a warning label).

• Hot dogs, luncheon meats (cold cuts), fermented and dry sausage, and other deli-style meats, poultry products, and smoked fish — unless they are reheated until steaming hot.

• Salads (without added preservatives) prepared on site in a deli-type establishment, such as ham salad, chicken salad, or seafood salad.


It is also important that you read your labels carefully and ensure you state special meal requirements when eating out.