Food Safety and the Vulnerable Populations


Everyone eats, so everyone is at risk for foodborne illness.  However, certain groups of people have a higher risk of developing foodborne illnesses and they carry a higher risk for serious episodes of disease.  These groups include children, seniors, pregnant women, transplant recipients and other individuals with compromised immune systems, such as individuals diagnosed with AIDS, cancer or diabetes.  Of the vulnerable groups, children under 5 and seniors over 65 are the ones at greatest risk for serious illness.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that there are 31 known foodborne pathogens – the remaining 200+ pathogens are called “unspecified agents.”   Most of the known foodborne pathogens have both acute and long-term health impacts.


While many cases of foodborne illness are mild, foodborne diseases can also be severe.  Acute symptoms frequently include headache, muscle aches, vomiting, diarrhea, and sometimes fever.  However, acute foodborne illness can also cause life-threatening conditions, such as blood infections or kidney failure.   The chronic impacts of foodborne illness vary depending on the bacterium, virus or parasite that caused the illness.  Recent research has shown that the following long-term health conditions are associated with several of the known foodborne diseases:  high blood pressure; irritable bowel syndrome; reactive arthritis; diabetes; kidney dysfunction; urinary tract infections; neurological conditions (such as Guillain-Barré Syndrome); mental retardation, schizophrenia and visual impairment.


It is important for individuals in the vulnerable populations to eat the safest food possible.  CFI encourages the vulnerable populations, as well as care-takers of these individuals, to learn more about food safety, food sources and food risks.   CFI strongly recommends the adoption of CFI’s Six Safe Food Practices, which are part of CFI’s Be Food Safe / Be Food Smart initiative.


Be Food Safe!  Be Food Smart!


Foodborne illness is caused by consuming food that contains bacteria, viruses, parasites, molds, myotoxins or prions.  Some of the more commonly known foodborne bacteria are Botulism, Campylobacter, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, Vibrio vulnificus and Salmonella.  A major foodborne virus is norovirus and a major foodborne parasite is Toxoplasma gondii.  BSE, commonly called “Mad Cow Disease” is caused by a prion.


Many people think that foodborne illness is rare, but it is not.  According to the CDC, each year 1 in 6 Americans are sickened by a foodborne illness, with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.  For the vulnerable populations – children, seniors, pregnant women and individuals with compromised immune systems – the impact of foodborne illness can be life-threatening and/or life-altering.   World-wide, the incidence of foodborne illness is much higher, so if traveling abroad, check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Travelers’ Health advice on food safety:


All food carries risk because food is a natural harbor for viruses, bacteria and parasites.  All food stakeholders – i.e., everyone  in the farm to table to medical community continuum – should  know this basic information about microbe development and transmission:


  • Bacteria/viruses/parasites frequently live inside or on the surface of raw foods.
  • Bacteria/viruses multiply quickly in lukewarm food that is kept at room temperature—if water or moisture is present, then the bacteria/viruses will grow even faster.
  • Bacteria/viruses/parasites move easily from person to person; from person to food; from one surface to another surface, and from one food to another, so foodborne illnesses are classified as infectious diseases.
  • Cooking is the only method consumers have for killing bacteria/viruses/parasites.


Understanding microbe growth and movement with regard to food is critical in preventing infectious foodborne diseases.  However, many food stakeholders lack this knowledge, thereby making the adoption of science-based,  safe food practices more difficult.


Recent research has shown that science-based,  safe food practices are effective in preventing the incidence and spread of disease,  but to provide the greatest benefit, these  practices must be routinely followed and promoted by all food stakeholders.


CFI promotes 6 Safe Food Practices to prevent and limit the spread of foodborne illnesses. While these practices will not totally eliminate all foodborne illnesses in the vulnerable populations, adopting these practices will help reduce the risk of acquiring a foodborne disease.


Click here for CFI’s Six Safe Food Practices


Click here for Young Children & Foofborne Illness 2014


Click here for LTHO of selected foodborne pathogens 2009




© 2015 Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention