Food Safety for older adults

Food safety is important for everyone. But older adults have specific, special needs when it comes to food safety. Read on to learn more about those needs and how to protect yourself and/or your older loved ones from food illnesses.

Food safety: Especially important for older adults

As we age, it is normal for our bodies not to work as well as they did when we were younger. Changes in our organs and body systems are expected as we grow older. These changes often make us more susceptible to contracting a food-borne illness or food poisoning. For example, as we get older, the stomach and intestinal tract can hold on to foods for a longer period of time, the liver and kidneys can have difficulty readily ridding the body of toxins, and sense of taste and/or smell can be altered.

Consider these facts:

  • By the age of 65, many people have been diagnosed with one or more chronic conditions, such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer, or cardiovascular disease, and are taking at least one medication. The side effects of some medications or the chronic disease process can weaken the immune system, causing older adults to be more susceptible to contracting a food-borne illness.
  • After the age of 75, many adults have a weakened immune system and are at an increased risk for contracting a food-borne illness.
  • As people age, the immune system and other organs can become sluggish in recognizing and ridding the body of harmful bacteria and other pathogens that cause infections — such as a food-borne illness. When older adults contract a food-borne illness, they are more likely to have a lengthier illness, undergo hospitalization, or even die.

So, to avoid contracting a food-borne illness, older adults and their caregivers must be especially vigilant when handling and preparing foods to be consumed. Make safe handling a lifelong commitment to minimize your risk of food-borne illness.

How to handle and prepare foods safely for older adults

As an older adult, it is especially important that the person preparing your food — are always careful with food handling and preparation. The easiest way to do this is to Check Your Steps — clean, separate, cook, and chill – from the Food Safe Families Campaign.

1. Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often

Bacteria can spread throughout the kitchen and get onto cutting boards, utensils, countertops, and food.

To ensure that your hands and surfaces are clean, be sure to:

  • Wash hands in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food and before and after using the bathroom, changing diapers, or handling pets.
  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot soapy water between the preparation of raw meat, poultry, and seafood products, and between the preparation of any other food that will not be cooked. As an added precaution, sanitize cutting boards and countertops by rinsing them in a solution made of one tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Or, as an alternative, run the plastic board through the wash cycle in an automatic dishwasher.
  • Use paper towels to clean up kitchen surfaces. If using cloth towels, you should wash them often in the hot cycle of the washing machine.
  • Wash produce. Rinse fruits and vegetables, and rub firm-skin fruits and vegetables, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten, under running tap water.
  • With canned goods, remember to clean lids before opening.

2. Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate

Cross-contamination occurs when bacteria is spread from one food product to another. This is especially common when handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs.  The key is to keep these foods — and their juices — away from ready-to-eat foods.

To prevent cross-contamination, remember to:

  • Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from other foods in your grocery shopping cart, grocery bags, and in your refrigerator.
  • Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs without first washing the plate with hot soapy water.
  • Don’t reuse marinades used on raw foods unless you bring them to a boil first.
  • Consider using one cutting board only for raw foods and another only for ready-to-eat foods, such as bread, fresh fruits and vegetables, and cooked meat.

3. Cook: Cook to safe temperatures

Foods are safely cooked when they are heated to the USDA-FDA recommended safe minimum internal temperatures (as shown on the “Is it Done Yet” chart on the FDA website).

To ensure that your foods are cooked safely, always:

  • Use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of cooked foods.  Check the internal temperature in several places to make sure that the meat, poultry, seafood, or egg product is cooked to safe minimum internal temperatures.
  • Cook ground beef to at least 160ºF and ground poultry to a safe minimum internal temperature of 165ºF.  Color of food is not a reliable indicator of safety or doneness.
  • Reheat fully cooked hams packaged at a USDA-inspected plant to 140ºF. For fully cooked ham that has been repackaged in any other location or for leftover fully cooked ham, heat to 165ºF.
  • Cook seafood to 145ºF.  Cook shrimp, lobster, and crab until they turn red and the flesh is pearly opaque.  Cook clams, mussels, and oysters until the shells open. If the shells do not open, do not eat the seafood inside.
  • Cook eggs until the yolks and whites are firm. Use only recipes in which the eggs are cooked or heated to 160ºF.
  • Cook all raw beef, lamb, pork, and veal steaks, roasts, and chops to 145ºF with a three-minute rest time after removal from the heat source.
  • Bring sauces, soups, and gravy to a boil when reheating. Heat other leftovers to 165ºF.
  • Reheat hot dogs, luncheon meats, bologna, and other deli meats until steaming hot or 165ºF.
  • When cooking in a microwave oven, cover food, stir, and rotate for even cooking. If there is no turntable, rotate the dish by hand once or twice during cooking.  Always allow standing time, which completes the cooking, before checking the internal temperature with a food thermometer. Food is done when it reaches the USDA-FDA recommended safe minimum internal temperature.

Is It Done Yet?

ALWAYS use a food thermometer to be most accurate. You can’t always tell just by looking. And never taste food to determine if it is safe.

Information courtesy of the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (