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First Yuppies, Now Yopis

MOSCOW, Idaho — First there were Yuppies, now there are YOPIs: Young, Old, Pregnant or Immune-system compromised.

YOPIs is food safety educator jargon to describe people at highest risk from food borne illnesses. The term echoed the halls and hallways of the 10th annual Food Safety Farm-to-Table Conference underway here at the University of Idaho.

Food safety information is most effective when it targets not only high risk food handling behaviors, but YOPIs, according to Pat Kendall, Colorado State University food safety specialist.

Kendall explained that people in these categories are more susceptible to food borne illnesses than the general population and risk more serious complications.

Val Hillers, Washington State University food safety educator and a co-leader on the research project, pointed out that people in the YOPI categories are highly susceptible to some of the less common but most serious forms of food borne pathogens.

“For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control there are only about 2,500 cases of illness annually from the rather common bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, however 80 percent of those infected require hospitalization and it can result in death,” Hillers said.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data 55.8 million, or about 20 percent of the U.S. population falls into one of the high-risk categories. The largest high-risk group is people over the age of 65, about 12.5 percent of the U.S. population.

“Not only are the elderly the largest group, they are the fastest growing group,” Kendall said. “By the year 2040, people over 65 will comprise at least 20 percent of the country’s population.”

The findings are the result of a process of multiple pollings of 40 food safety scientists and experts throughout the nation to achieve consensus on who is most at risk and what are the highest risk food handling behaviors within each group.

Infants and young children, for example, are at high risk for food borne illness because of underdeveloped immune systems, their tendency to develop more severe symptoms than adults, and the potential for contact with pathogens in a day care setting.

Salmonella is the most common infecting pathogen for infants under one year of age. For children ages one through four, shigella is the largest cause of illness.

Special behaviors to reduce the risk among the young given priority by those polled include drinking only pasteurized milk and juices, using cheeses and yogurt made from pasteurized milk, avoiding foods containing raw eggs, and thoroughly rinsing fresh fruits and vegetables with running water.

People over age 65 are more susceptible to Salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7 and other pathogens because their immune systems have become less effective, their digestion has slowed and they are less responsive to antibiotic treatment.

Older people can reduce risk of illness by avoiding raw or undercooked shellfish, raw sprouts, and raw or undercooked eggs.

Pregnant women are especially susceptible to the Listeria bacteria as well as toxoplasmosis, a parasite commonly carried by cats and other household pets.

Risk reducing behaviors for those who are pregnant include consuming only pasteurized dairy products and juices, avoiding foods with raw or undercooked eggs, not handling pets while preparing foods and keeping them away from food preparation areas, and not cleaning cat litter boxes.

Salmonella and Listeria are among the greatest threats for people with compromised immune systems. This group includes people with cancer, advanced diabetes, kidney diseases, AIDS or HIV and those being treated with immunosuppressive medications.

Risk reducing behaviors for this group include avoiding raw or undercooked seafood, raw sprouts, foods containing raw or undercooked eggs, and sticking to pasteurized dairy products and juices.

The consensus of the experts was that there are a number of things that people in all high-risk groups can do to reduce their chances of illness. They include avoiding soft cheeses, smoked fish and cold deli salads, and reheating hot dogs and lunch meats to steaming hot.

Hillers adds that people in the high risk categories should also follow basic food safety guidelines including washing their hands before and during food preparation, cooking meats thoroughly, avoiding contamination of other foods with raw meats or juices, and keeping foods at safe temperatures.

Hillers and Kendall said that with this information in hand the next question is how best to educate and inform those who are at a higher risk.

“What we have right now is words on paper, and translating words to changes in behavior in people is the difficult part,” Hillers said.

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