Fundamentals of Food Safety for Seniors

Food-related illnesses can be devastating, no matter your age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne infection and illness in the United States each year. Seniors are particularly vulnerable. In 2013, 12 percent of foodborne infections, 23 percent of hospitalizations, and 51 percent of deaths recorded by the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network were people age 65 and older.

As you age, your immune system weakens, your body becomes less capable of combating bacteria, your digestion slows, and your stomach becomes more sensitive. Inflammation of the stomach lining and a decrease in stomach acid further increase the likelihood of foodborne illness because the stomach can no longer effectively limit the number of bacteria that enter the small intestine. Undergoing a major surgery in old age puts the body at an even bigger disadvantage to effectively fighting infections. Even malnutrition, a major issue for seniors, can lead to an increased rate of infections, including those due to foodborne bacteria. For all of these reasons, food safety is absolutely critical in old age.

Foodborne illnesses often affect elders for longer periods of time than the rest of the population. An illness may be so serious that an elder needs to be hospitalized, and it may even result in death. Educating yourself and your loved one about proper food handling and preparation techniques can significantly reduce the chances that they will consume spoiled or contaminated food.

The four basic steps involved in food safety are Shopping, Preparation, Consumption, and Storage. Below, you’ll find everything you need to know to minimize the chances of foodborne illness in getting food from the grocery store to the dining room table.

Shopping

#1: Separate raw meats, poultry, seafood, and eggs from other foods in your shopping cart, grocery bags, and refrigerator.

#2: Place raw meats, poultry, and seafood in separate plastic bags when purchasing from the grocery store.

#3: Never buy canned goods that are dented, cracked, or bulging.

#4: Don’t purchase bruised or damaged produce.

#5: Don’t buy foods that are past their “sell-by” date.

#6: Don’t purchase “Manager’s Special” foods, especially raw meat, poultry, or seafood.

#7: Pick up perishable foods last and go home directly from the grocery store.

#8: In hot weather, bring a cooler filled with ice to transport perishable foods home safely.

Preparation

#1: Never thaw food at room temperature. Always thaw in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. After thawing in cold water or the microwave, food must be cooked immediately.

#2: Wash hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before preparing food. Re-wash your hands after any bathroom breaks or distractions from food preparation.

#3: Wash hands, utensils, cutting boards, and counters with hot, soapy water after contact with raw meat, poultry, and seafood products to prevent cross contamination. Consider using a separate cutting board for different kinds of foods, like one for raw and ready-to-eat foods and another for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.

#4: Wash produce. Rinse fruits and vegetables and rub firm-skinned fruits and vegetables under running tap water.

#5: Clean lids of canned goods before opening.

#6: Make sure to cook certain foods that are dangerous when raw or undercooked to the proper temperature such as eggs, sprouts, fish, shellfish, meat, or poultry.

#7: Don’t reuse marinades that were used on raw meat, poultry, or seafood unless the marinade is first brought to a boil.

#8: Cook food fully using a constant heat source.

#9: Set the oven to 325°F or higher.

#10: If food needs to stay warm before it’s eaten, set the oven temperature high enough to keep the food at 140°F or above. Check the internal temperature with a food thermometer.

#11: Don’t try to keep food warm for more than two hours.

#12: Reheat food in the microwave to a temperature of 165°F  or until it’s hot and steaming

#13: After cooking, sanitize cutting boards and countertops by rinsing them in a solution made with one tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach per gallon of water or run plastic cutting boards through the dishwasher.

#14: Use paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces. If cloth towels are used, wash them frequently in hot water in the washing machine.

Cook Food

The following foods should be cooked to the temperatures listed. To test a dish’s temperature, insert a food thermometer into several different places including the center of the dish. Allow cuts of meat to rest for at least three minutes after removing from the oven before cutting and serving.

  • Fresh ground beef, pork, lamb, or veal: 160°F
  • Beef, pork, lamb, and veal (roasts, steaks, chops): 145°F
  • Ham, cook before eating: 145°F
  • Ham, fully cooked, to reheat: 140°F
  • Poultry, whole, parts, or ground: 165°F
  • Fish: 145°F
  • Egg dishes, casseroles: 160°F
  • Leftovers, to reheat: 165°F
  • Hot dogs, deli meats: 165°F or until steaming hot

Consumption

#1: Be wary of and generally avoid high risk foods for bacteria causing foodborne illness:

  • Uncooked fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Some animal products like unpasteurized dairy products
  • Sprouts and shellfish

#2: Avoid or severely limit the consumption of raw or undercooked foods like beef tartare, caesar salad dressing, raw oysters, and over-easy eggs

At restaurants:

#1: Pick up or receive the food hot and eat within two hours

#2: Don’t purchase foods from unlicensed or sub-par vendors like street carts, food trucks, or dirty restaurants

#3: Don’t order dishes with undercooked or raw ingredients.

#4: Ask for your meat to be cooked to medium or above.

Storage

#1: Throw out food that might not be safe.

#2: Refrigerate or freeze all perishable food.

#3: Pay attention to the best-by date, use-by or freeze-by date, and the age of foods in the freezer and pantry.

#4: Don’t leave perishable food out of the refrigerator for more than two hours if the room is warmer than 90°F.

#5: Store food in shallow containers.

#6: Divide large quantities of food into smaller portions.

#7: Cover leftovers loosely and refrigerate immediately.

#8: Cold foods should be kept at 40°F or colder

#9: Frozen foods should be kept at 0°F or colder.

Food Lifespans

The following foods can be kept in the refrigerator (R) and the freezer (F) for the listed times before being thrown away:

  • Fresh eggs in shell: R: 3-5 weeks; F: Don’t freeze in shell.
  • Fresh egg whites/eggs without shell: R: 2-4 days; F: 12 months
  • Hard cooked eggs: R: 1 week; F: Don’t freeze.
  • TV dinners: R: keep frozen until use; F: 3-4 months
  • Prepared deli salads: R: 3-5 days; F: Don’t freeze.
  • Hot dogs, opened package: R: 1 week; F: 1-2 months
  • Hot dogs, unopened package: R: 2 weeks; F: 1-2 months
  • Lunch meats, opened or deli sliced: R: 3-5 days; F: 1-2 months
  • Lunch meats, unopened: R: 2 weeks; F: 1-2 months
  • Soups and stews: R: 3-4 days; F: 2-3 months
  • Ground meat and poultry, uncooked: R: 3-4 days; F: 2-3 months
  • Bacon: R: 7 days; F: 1 month
  • Sausage: R: 1-2 days; F: 1-2 months
  • Ham, fully cooked, whole: R: 7 days; F: 1-2 months
  • Ham, fully cooked, half or slices: R: 3-5 days; F: 1-2 months
  • Steaks, uncooked: R: 3-5 days; F: 6-12 months
  • Chops, uncooked: R: 3-5 days; F: 4-6 months
  • Roasts: R: 3-5 days; F: 4-12 months
  • Chicken or turkey, whole, uncooked: R: 1-2 days; F: 1 year
  • Chicken or turkey pieces, uncooked: R: 1-2 days; F: 9 months
  • Meat or poultry leftovers: R: 3-4 days; F: 2-6 months

For a comprehensive list of food storage recommendations visit the USDA-FDA Cold Storage Chart. Then, download the FDA’s FoodKeeper app onto your loved one’s phone so that they can easily access food safety storage advice for more than 400 food and beverage items.

To read a lengthier article that details everything you could want to know about foodborne illness and seniors, visit the Food and Drug Administration’s guide on food safety. Check in next week for “The Basics of Foodborne Illness,” where you’ll learn about the symptoms, types, necessary measures to take if your loved one contracts a foodborne illness.