Each year about about 13 million Canadians become ill from eating foods contaminated by bacteria, viruses or parasites, Health Canada reports.
However, safe food handling, preparation and storage practices can greatly decrease the risks of food-borne illness. These practices are particularly important for seniors. The Health Canada says that the body’s defenses against bacteria and serious illness weaken with age, leaving us more vulnerable to food-borne illness—or food poisoning—as we get older.
The National Institutes of Health adds that:
- Seniors have less stomach acid, making it more difficult to rid the digestive tract of harmful bacteria
- Seniors’ digestive systems may slow down, giving bacteria more time to cause harm
- Seniors’ diminishing sense of smell and taste can make it more difficult to notice when food has spoiled
- Older persons with food-borne illnesses may stay sicker longer
Further, some seniors, particularly those with dementia, may need the assistance of family and professional caregivers in following food safety practices—for instance, discarding leftovers that have been in the refrigerator too long.
It is good for everyone—seniors and caregivers alike—to know the food safety practices that greatly reduce risk of illness. Below are some of the NIH’s recommendations:
Safe Food Handling and Preparation for Seniors
- Wash hands before and after handling food. Be certain to wash hands after handling raw meat, poultry, fish, seafood and eggs. Hand washing—at least 20 seconds in warm, soapy water—eliminates nearly half of food-borne illnesses, as well as significantly reducing the spread of cold and flu viruses, the ADA reports.
- Wash cooking items—such as cutting boards—with hot soapy water between food items.
- Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
- Raw meats and poultry do not need to be washed. Washing can spread bacteria to other foods, surfaces and utensils.
- Separate raw meat, poultry, fish, seafood and eggs—and their juices—from ready-to-eat foods. Use one cutting board for fresh fruits and vegetables and a separate one for raw meat, poultry, fish, seafood and eggs. Do not place cooked food on a plate that held raw meat, poultry, fish, seafood or eggs unless you first wash the plate with hot, soapy water.
- Cook meat to recommended internal temperatures, to destroy bacteria – beef , 145 °F; ground beef, veal and lamb, 160 °F; pork,160 °F; poultry, 165 °F; fish and seafood, 145 °F; eggs, 160 °F; and leftovers,165 °F . Check internal temperatures with a food thermometer.
- Thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator, not at room temperature. Place in a container to prevent juices, which may contain harmful bacteria, from contaminating other food. Food may also be thawed in a microwave and cooked right away.
Safe Food Storage for Seniors
- Keep your refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below and your freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Use an appliance thermometer.
- Never keep refrigerated leftovers more than three or four days—even if they still look and smell fine.
- Refrigerate promptly. Never allow meat, poultry, fish, seafood and eggs or fresh vegetables or fruit to sit at room temperature for more than two hours before storing in the refrigerator or freezer. Reduce this time to one hour when the room temperature is 90 degrees or above.
- Keep in mind that bacteria grow quickly in the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees. So, hot food left out for serving should be maintained at an internal temperature of 140 degrees or above. Likewise, cold foods should be kept below 40 degrees to prevent bacteria growth.
- Follow “sell-by” and “use-by” dates on food packaging. Do not buy an item after the “sell-by” date, and throw out food when the “use-by” date passes.
- Do not take restaurant leftovers home unless you can refrigerate them within two hours of being served (one hour if air temperature is 90 degrees or above) – or if you can keep them in a cooler with ice or freezer gel packs until you arrive home.
Foods for Seniors to Avoid
Health Canada and The National Institutes of Health urges seniors, because of their lowered defenses against food contamination, to avoid:
- Raw or undercooked meat, poultry, fish or seafood
- Unpasteurized or raw milk, milk products and juices
- Raw or partially cooked eggs and foods made with raw eggs such as cookie dough and cake batter, protein milkshakes and Caesar salad dressing
- Hot dogs and luncheon meats, unless reheated until steaming hot or 165 degrees Fahrenheit
- Soft cheeses like Brie and Camembert, unless labeled “made with pasteurized milk”
- Uncooked sprouts, such as bean, alfalfa, clover or radish
What to Do When You Suspect Food Poisoning in Seniors
The National Institutes of Health recommends the following if you suspect you have contracted a food-borne illness:
- Contact your doctor or health care provider and seek medical treatment as necessary.
- Save the food in question, wrap it securely, clearly label it and freeze it. It may be used to diagnose your illness and prevent others from getting sick.
- Save all packaging and record the date and time the food was eaten. Also save unopened packages of the same product.
- Call the local health department if you believe you became ill from food eaten at a local restaurant.
- Symptoms of food poisoning may include upset stomach, abdominal pain, vomiting or diarrhea. Flu-like symptoms with a fever, headache and body aches also are possible. It can be confused with other types of illness.
Food-borne bacteria usually take one to three days to cause illness—but in some cases, depending on the bacteria, as little as 30 minutes to as many as three weeks.