Older adults have vast experience cooking, eating, and handling food and tend to do a better job when it comes to food safety compared to any other age group.  That’s the good news.  The not-so-good news is that older adults are also more susceptible to food poisoning than any other group.  Reviewing common food safety mistakes can be a great refresher to help prevent potential food poisoning and who knows, you may just learn something new.

Why Older Adults are More Susceptible to Food Poisoning

Changes in several body systems and organs as we age can contribute to older adults being more susceptible to food poisoning.

  • The ability of the immune system to fight off infection may begin to decline.
  • There may not be enough acid produced by the stomach.  The acid in your stomach kills bacteria prior to it entering your intestinal tract.
  • The kidneys may not filter as effectively.
  • The liver may not rid the body of toxins as effectively.
  • Underlying and chronic conditions such as cancer and diabetes may hinder the body’s ability to fight infection.

Cleaning Food

Did you know there are actually certain types of foods it’s best not to wash while others should always be washed?  Avoid rinsing or washing poultry before cooking.   Rinsing the meat does not remove the bacteria that can reside in and on poultry, but rather increases the risk of contaminating other areas such as your sink, countertops, and hands.  However, you always want to wash fresh produce.  Wash all vegetables and fruits under running water and use a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm fruits and vegetables such as cucumbers, avocados, and melons.  Washing and rinsing should occur even if you intend to peel your produce.  It is not recommended to use anything other than water, including soap, detergent, or commercially sold produce wash.

In addition to washing the food directly, frequently washing hands, utensils, and surfaces cannot be stressed enough.   Consider using paper towels and disposable wipes for clean-up both in between steps and during the final clean-up.  If dish clothes and towels are going to be used, wash them frequently in the washer on a hot cycle with detergent to kill any contaminants.  Before you begin handling food, plan the tools you will need and place them on the counter near the area you will be preparing your food.  This is especially important when handling raw meat.  Cross-contamination, or how bacteria can be spread from one food product to another occurs when your hands or the surfaces you touch become soiled with bacteria from the foods you’re preparing.  Consider placing a trash can for waste directly next to the counter where you intend to do prep.  Without preparation and planning the number of surfaces you touch increases dramatically.  You would likely reach for refrigerator handles, faucets, drawer pulls, and so on, not to mention the contaminants that can drip on the floor when carrying wrappers and waste over to a trash can.  Proper planning and frequent hand washing can help to prevent contamination from raw meat onto the various surfaces within your kitchen.

Cooking Food Safely

Cooking food for the proper amount of time and at the correct temperature is the safest way to kill bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses.  Using clean food thermometers will ensure that you have safely cooked poultry, meat, casseroles, and other foods all the way through.  The To Your Health!  Food Safety for Seniors guide has a great section explaining the differences in food thermometers. 

Keep in mind the cut of meat matters.  Whole cuts, like steaks and roasts, have bacteria on the outside, while ground beef has bacteria throughout because of the exposure that occurs in the grinding and shaping process.  That is why hamburgers should always be cooked well done.  Refer to the table below for more on proper cooking temperatures. 

Cross-Contamination of Food

Earlier when discussing clean-up, the idea of cross-contamination was introduced.  In addition to frequent hand washing and cleaning during food prep, keeping foods separated can decrease the likelihood of cross-contamination.  Keep raw meat separate from other foods in your shopping cart.   Check to make sure there are no holes and no leaks in the packaging.  Many stores have bags similar to produce bags in the raw meat area of the store to place items in.  Consider picking up the meat with the inside of the bag to avoid contaminating your hands.  If bags aren’t available in the meat section, grab a few extras from the produce section to place your meat into within your cart.  At home, store meat separately in the refrigerator.  Use different cutting boards and knives for each type of meat and produce.  Wash cutting boards and knives in hot soapy water or the dishwasher.  If raw meat is placed on a plate, never put cooked meat back onto the same plate.   

Food Storage

When it comes to food storage there are three mistakes that are most likely to contribute to food-borne illness.

  1. The temperature of your meat, fish, or dairy is not cold enough.
  2. Food is left sitting out at room temperature for too long.
  3. You forget how long food has been in the refrigerator or freezer.

At both the store and at home, refrigerated foods should be kept at 40°F.  Everything in the store refrigerator case should feel cold to the touch.  Pick from the bottom of the stack of items because those are the least exposed to room temperature air.  Buy a thermometer to place in your refrigerator to make sure it stays at 40°F or below.  Store items like condiments, water, and juice in the door and keep meat, eggs, and dairy within the body of the fridge where it’s coldest.

A prime time for bacteria to grow is when food is left to cool at room temperature for too long after cooking before you put it in the fridge.  This is a common practice both when doing multi-meal prep and after cooking and having a large sit-down meal.  Putting hot items directly in the fridge creates that annoying layer of condensation on the containers and hot containers can crack cold refrigerator shelves.  Store items in shallower containers for quicker cooling.  Consider using an ice bath to cool items down from hot to warm and then place them into the refrigerator when warm.  If you’re still concerned about cold shelves cracking, consider putting warm items onto hot pads within the refrigerator to absorb the heat.  The best practice is to put food into the fridge while it’s still warm.

Always date the foods you freeze and the leftovers you store.  Keep the oldest items on top or in front of the refrigerator or freezer so they get used first.  Lifetimes for leftovers and frozen foods vary.  For detailed information on the best cold food storage times see this list from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and FoodSafety.gov.  This site contains a link to a downloadable PDF that you can print and post on your refrigerator for reference.

Key Points for Food Safety

  • Older Adults are more susceptible to food poisoning based on body changes associated with aging.
  • Clean and rinse all produce, but don’t clean poultry before cooking.  Clean surfaces and hands frequently in between cooking steps, especially after handling raw meat to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Cooking foods to the proper temperature as measured by a cooking thermometer is the best way to ensure that the bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses have been killed.
  • Separate items (particularly raw meats) in both your shopping cart and your refrigerator.
  • Refrigerated items should be kept at 40°F or below.  Pick items from the bottom of the stack at the grocery store and store meat, dairy, and eggs within the body of your refrigerator, not the door.
  • Transfer leftovers and meal-prepped foods in shallow containers to your refrigerator for storage while still warm.
  • Label leftovers, meal-prepped foods, and frozen foods with dates so you are certain of how old they are.

Resources for Food Safety

10 Dangerous Food Safety Mistakes | CDC.gov (2022, September 25).

11 Food Safety Mistakes You’re Probably Making | SilverSneakers.com (2019, June 20).

Cold Food Storage Chart | FoodSafety.gov (2021, September 20).

Food Safety for Seniors | UCDavis.edu (2000, October).

Food Safety Perceptions and Practices of Older Adults | PubMed Central (2011 March-April).

McGuire, Michelle, et al. “Food Safety.” Nutritional Sciences, Fourth ed., Cengage Learning, Boston, MA, 2016, pp. 223.239.

People at Risk:  Older Adults | FoodSafety.gov (2022, March 31).

By Gretchen Stevenson RN, BSN | November, 2022