Foodborne illness in children and what you can do to prevent it

Young children are a high-risk group, yet few childcare providers receive training in safe food handling. Learn about measures you can take as a childcare provider to protect those in your care.

An adult feeding a small infant out of a bowl.

Half of the people who get food poisoning each year are children under 15 years of age, as reported in Partnership for Food Safety Education. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that children under the age of five are considered a high risk for foodborne poisoning because their immune systems are still developing. This means that the same amount or type of pathogen in food that might not affect a healthy adult can cause a serious illness in a child. 

Effects of Childhood Food Poisoning

When children get food poisoning, they have both a risk of having a more serious reaction and also a risk of developing longer term complications. For example, children can become dehydrated very quickly as a result of vomiting and diarrhea, or some strains of E. coli can lead to a serious condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). More specifically, about 3-15% of infections result in HUS, which can lead to kidney failure or death, and children are most at risk for developing this.  Chronic arthritis, brain and/or nerve damage are other complications that can develop.

Prevention Measures

Increased awareness of the potential complications that can occur in children is critical to identifying the importance of following basic food safety practices. There are four core food safety practices to follow which can minimize the risk of foodborne illness:

  • Clean: Wash hands, countertops and produce. Do not wash meat, as there is a greater chance of cross-contamination if this is done. Sounds simple enough, however, according to a USDA study, people are not properly washing their hands before preparing meals 97% of the time. Think about this the next time you step into the kitchen. Do you wash for the recommended 20 seconds every time after touching raw meat or poultry, for example? After you touch your face? Do you use a clean, single-use towel to dry your hands? Or, do you know the proper concentration for making a homemade sanitizer?
  • Separate: Foodborne pathogens can be transferred to food through cross-contamination from raw meats and eggs to ready-to-eat foods through surfaces or even our hands. Is your raw meat stored above produce in your refrigerator? Do you use a separate cutting board for raw meat and another for fresh produce or other ready-to-eat foods?
  • Cook: It is important to cook food to the proper minimum internal temperature. How do you know that you are doing this? Using a calibrated food thermometer is the only way to know if food has achieved a safe minimum internal cooking temperature. The same USDA study reported that only 34% of study participants use a thermometer to check for doneness, and then even when they did many still cooked to an improper temperature.
  • Chill: Keeping food out of the temperature danger zone is critical, so refrigerate food at a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below and practice measures to cool large batches of food. The next time you prepare a pot of soup or spaghetti, pay attention to how long it spends in the danger zone when cooling. Placing the pot in an ice water bath and dividing into shallow containers can assure that you are cooling foods properly.

Little steps can make a huge difference in the life of a child. MSU Extension offers a food safety training course for childcare providers titled Safe Food = Healthy Kids. This course was developed because at this time there are no food safety training requirements for providers in the state of Michigan, and the hope is that we can better protect our children by minimizing the risk of foodborne illness. This course is approved through Great Start to Quality and three credit hours are provided towards annual training hours for licensed childcare providers. To find a course, visit the Safe Food = Healthy Kids website. 

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