Reducing the Risk of Foodborne Illnesses for Older Adults: Four Important Steps

various fruits and vegetables

Older adults (specifically age 65 and older) are at a higher risk for hospitalization and death due to foodborne illness. But why is that?

That’s because organs and other body systems change as people age:

• The gastrointestinal tract holds onto food for a longer period of time, allowing bacteria to grow.

• The liver and kidneys might not properly get rid of foreign bacteria and toxins within the body.

• The stomach might not produce enough acid for digestion. The acidity helps to reduce the number of bacteria in our intestinal tract.

• Underlying chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cancer, can also increase a person’s risk of foodborne illness.

Keeping foods safe to reduce illness

Older adults can reduce the risk of getting a foodborne illness by choosing safer foods and safer ways to prepare foods. Here are four important steps to keep foods safe:

1) Clean

Germs that can make you sick can survive in many places around your kitchen, including your food, hands, utensils, cutting boards, and countertops.

Wash your hands the right way:

  • Use plain soap and water—skip the antibacterial soap—and scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse hands, then dry with a clean towel.
  • Wash your hands often, especially during these key times when germs can spread:
    • Beforeduring, and after preparing food
    • After handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, or their juices, or uncooked eggs
    • Before eating
    • After using the toilet
    • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
    • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
    • After touching garbage
    • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
    • Before and after treating a cut or wound
    • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
    • After handling pet food or pet treats.

Wash surfaces and utensils after each use:

  • Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with hot, soapy water, especially after they’ve held raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs.
  • Wash dish cloths often in the hot cycle of your washing machine.

2) Separate

Use separate cutting boards and plates for produce, meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs:

  • Use one cutting board for fresh produce or other foods that won’t be cooked before they’re eaten, and another for raw meat, poultry, or seafood. Replace them when they are worn.
  • Use separate plates and utensils for cooked and raw foods.
  • Use hot, soapy water to thoroughly wash plates, utensils, and cutting boards that touched raw meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, or flour.

Keep certain types of food separate:

  • In your shopping cart, separate raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from other foods and place packages of raw meat, poultry, and seafood in plastic bags if available. When you check out, place raw meat, poultry, and seafood in separate bags from other foods.
  • At home, place raw meat, poultry, and seafood in containers or sealed, leak-proof plastic bags. Freeze them if you’re not planning to use them within a few days.
  • In the fridge, keep eggs in their original carton and store them in the main compartment—not in the door.

3) Cook to the right temperature

Food is safely cooked when the internal temperature is high enough to kill germs that can make you sick:

  • Use a food thermometer to be sure your food is safe. When you think your food is done, place the food thermometer in the thickest part of the food, making sure not to touch bone, fat, or gristle.
  • Refer to this Minimum Cooking Temperatures Chart by clicking HERE to be sure your foods have reached a safe temperature.

Keep food hot (140˚F or above) after cooking:

If you’re not serving food right after cooking, keep it out of the temperature danger zone (between 40°F -140°F) where germs grow rapidly by using a heat source like a chafing dish, warming tray, or slow cooker.

Microwave food thoroughly (165˚F or above):

  • Read package directions for cooking and follow them exactly to make sure food is thoroughly cooked.
  • If the food label says, “Let stand for x minutes after cooking,” follow the directions — letting microwaved food sit for a few minutes allows food to cook thoroughly as colder areas absorb heat from hotter areas.
  • Stir food in the middle of heating. Follow package directions for commercially prepared frozen food; some are not designed to be stirred while heating.

Food is safely cooked only when the internal temperature is high enough to kill germs that can make you sick.

Check out these links for special guidelines for barbeques and smokers:

4) Chill

Refrigerate perishable foods within 2 hours:

  • Bacteria that cause food poisoning multiply quickest between 40°F and 140°F.
  • Your refrigerator should be set to 40°F or below and your freezer to 0°F or below. Use an appliance thermometer to be sure.
  • Never leave perishable foods out of refrigeration for more than 2 hours. If the food is exposed to temperatures above 90°F (like a hot car or summer picnic), refrigerate it within 1 hour.
  • Leftovers should be placed in shallow containers and refrigerated promptly to allow quick cooling.
  • Never thaw or marinate foods on the counter. The safest way to thaw or marinate meat, poultry, and seafood is in the refrigerator.
  • Freezing does not destroy harmful germs, but it does keep food safe until you can cook it.
  • Know when to throw out food by checking this Safe Storage Times chart by clicking HERE. Be sure you throw food out before harmful bacteria grow.

Information courtesy of FoodSafety.gov.

Click HERE to read our medical disclaimer.