In the wake of Hurricane Isaac, which left millions without power, a new study highlights that many older adults are not equipped to keep food safe during an extended power outage.
The study, published in Educational Gerontology, was conducted by researchers from RTI International, Tennessee State University and Jackson State Community College.
Emergencies, such as Hurricane Isaac, often lead to extended power outages that endanger the safety of food and cause an increased risk of foodborne illness. This heightened risk can be potentially dangerous for older adults, who are more likely than younger adults to experience serious complications or death from foodborne illness.
The study found few adults aged 60 and older were prepared for an extended power outage (24 hours or more), and those who had experienced a severe power outage rarely followed recommended safety practices for discarding refrigerated or frozen foods.
"This study suggests that information on food safety during and after extended power outages may not be reaching older adults, or that they are not responding to this information," said Katherine Kosa, a research analyst at RTI and lead author of the study.
The researchers surveyed 290 adults aged 60 and older to gather information about their awareness, knowledge, and practices related to food safety and emergency preparedness, including their recent experiences with extended power outages.
Only 17 percent of the survey participants reported being fully prepared to keep food safe during an extended power outage. Forty nine percent of respondents considered themselves somewhat prepared while 34 percent had taken no steps to prepare for a power outage. Lack of thought, concern and storage space were the top three reasons participants gave for not being prepared to keep food safe during an extended power outage.
Survey respondents were also unlikely to follow recommended food safety practices during and after a power outage. The researchers found that less than 40 percent of those who experienced a power outage discarded refrigerated, perishable foods or frozen foods that had thawed.
Additionally, 21 to 36 percent of respondents reported tasting food to determine whether it was safe to eat and at least 5 percent of respondents stored food outside directly in snow or cold weather, both potentially unsafe practices.
"Educators and public health officials can use these findings to address gaps in older adults' knowledge and practices to keep food safe during and after a power outage or other emergency," Kosa said. "Developing or improving educational materials targeted to older adults may ultimately help reduce the risk of foodborne illness among older adults."
The study was partially funded through a grant from the National Integrated Food Safety Initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (grant no. 2007-51110-03819).
A previous study led by RTI International found that most Americans of all ages are not prepared to ensure food safety during power outages.
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