Life doesn't stop when you turn 65, but a handful of your dietary habits should. In particular, experts say there's one type of meat you're likely eating that may be putting you at risk of serious foodborne illness. In fact, you may be shocked to learn just how rampant contamination is within this one type of food. After analyzing 257 samples of this popular type of meat, one study found that over 90 percent of the product was tainted with harmful bacteria. Read on to find out which kind of meat to avoid—and why your risk skyrockets over the age of 65.
Ninety percent of ground turkey is contaminated with harmful bacteria.
Though ground turkey is often regarded as a leaner and healthier alternative to ground beef, the risks may outweigh the benefits, according to Consumer Reports. In 2013, they analyzed samples of ground turkey sold in retail stores and found that the vast majority of the meat was contaminated with bacteria known to cause foodborne illness. "Overall, 90 percent of the samples had one or more of the five bacteria for which we tested," the researchers reported.
Within those findings, the team determined that 69 percent of ground turkey samples were contaminated with Enterococcus, and 60 percent harbored Escherichia coli (E. coli). Additionally, they found traces of Salmonella in 15 percent of the samples and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a type of bacteria known to cause lethal infections, in another five percent. To make matters worse, the study determined that "almost all of the disease-causing organisms in our 257 samples proved resistant to one or more of the antibiotics commonly used to fight them."
Those over 65 are more likely to become seriously ill from contaminated food.
While anyone can contract a foodborne illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that those over the age of 65 are at elevated risk of hospitalization or death as a result. They explain that this is because, "as people age, their immune systems and organs don't recognize and get rid of harmful germs as well as they once did."
This is true for several reasons, according to foodsafety.gov, a government partner of the CDC and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). First, as you age, your gastrointestinal tract tends to retain food for a longer period of time, allowing bacteria to proliferate. It also may produce less acid as years pass, impairing your body's natural ability to reduce bacteria in the intestinal tract. Additionally, your liver and kidneys may be less efficient at fighting off bacteria and toxins, and underlying illnesses may further complicate the process.
The end result? "Nearly half of people aged 65 and older who have a lab-confirmed foodborne illness from Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria or E. coli are hospitalized," the CDC warns.
Experts are calling for tougher safety regulations.
If you're shocked to learn that up to 90 percent of ground turkey samples are contaminated with bacteria, you may be even more surprised to find out just how close the sampled meat came to meeting legal requirements.
"To limit contamination, federal law requires processors to create a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plan. For turkey processors, HACCP includes steps for washing and chilling carcasses throughout processing to reduce the growth of harmful bacteria and contamination of the finished product," Consumer Reports explains. "But HACCP doesn't require eradication of harmful bacteria. In fact, Salmonella is permitted in up to half of the ground-turkey samples that the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) tests at processors' plants. And bugs that remain can keep growing until the turkey is cooked."
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There are steps you can take to minimize your risk of illness.
If you're over the age of 65, avoiding ground turkey is the simplest way to ensure that you don't get a contaminated batch. However, if you do plan to keep eating this particular type of meat, experts have some suggestions.
First, be sure to store your meat below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and keep it separate from your other foods until you're ready to cook it. When you do, make sure you do so thoroughly until your food reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit, using a meat thermometer to confirm its internal temperature. Wash and sanitize your hands, utensils, plates, cutting boards, and anything else that may come in contact with ground turkey while it is raw. Never return cooked meat to a plate that held the meat raw, and eat it soon after cooking it.
Finally, stick to turkey products that say "organic" or "no antibiotics" on the packaging. Though the study found that these are just as likely to be contaminated with bacteria, they are less likely to be resistant to antibiotics if you do become sick, according to Consumer Reports.