Keeping food safe for older adults

Stephanie Smith

Many of us may be caring for or preparing food for older adults, which can present a challenge given that older adults are at higher risk for foodborne illness. According to foodsafety.gov, adults aged 65 and older are at higher risk for foodborne illness because of changes in their body as they age. These changes include lower amounts of acid in the stomach, retention of food for longer periods in the gastrointestinal tract, lower liver and kidney function, and chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cancer. All of these factors can contribute to increased susceptibility to disease from harmful bacteria and toxins.

According to the FDA, foods that are most likely to contain harmful bacteria are raw fruits and vegetables, and some animal products. Animal products that especially present a high risk include raw or undercooked eggs, meat, poultry, seafood, unpasteurized milk, soft cheeses, as well as deli meats and salads. The FDA recommends choosing the following safe choices for preparing and serving food for older adults:

Serve meat, poultry, and seafood that has been cooked to the correct internal temperature. Ground meats and egg dishes should be cooked to 160°F; steaks, roasts, chops, and seafood should be cooked to 145°F, and all poultry or leftovers should be cooked to 165°F.Only serve milk and cheeses which have been prepared using pasteurized milk.Fruits and vegetables should be washed thoroughly under running water before consuming. It is best to serve cooked vegetables to further reduce risk.Sprouts are especially prone to contamination with pathogens and should not be served to older adults unless they have been cooked.Hot dogs and deli meats should be reheated to 165°F, or until they are steaming hot.Only shelf-stable (canned) pâtés or meat spreads should be served.Deli salads should be freshly prepared at home, as store bought deli salads present a higher risk.Never allow an older adult to consume raw dough as it is at risk of being contaminated with Salmonella and E. coli from the eggs and flour.Never consume dishes that may contain raw eggs such as Caesar dressing.

In addition to making safe food choices, it is imperative to always follow best practices for purchasing, preparing, and serving food. Make sure that all surfaces and utensils have been thoroughly washed in hot soapy water prior to use and in-between preparation of different foods such as meat and vegetables. Raw fruits and vegetables should be prepared prior to handling raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs. Always wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before preparing any food. Food should always be cooked to safe temperatures and this should be verified by using a food thermometer. Make sure hot food is kept hot and cold food is kept cold. Bacteria can grow rapidly at temperatures between 40°-140°F.

When eating out, older adults should avoid any foods that contain raw meat, poultry, seafood, sprouts, or eggs. Additionally, foods should never be ordered rare. The FDA recommends asking the server if food contains uncooked eggs, sprouts, meat, poultry, or seafood, and making a different selection if it does. Safe food choices when dining out include fully cooked meat, eggs, seafood and poultry; deli meats that have been cooked until they are steaming hot; milk, cheeses and eggs that have been pasteurized; and food that do not contain raw sprouts. Make sure that any leftovers are refrigerated within two hours after being served, or one hour if the outdoor temperature is above 90°F.

The FDA has a publication “Food Safety for Older Adults and People with Cancer, Diabetes, HIV/AIDS, Organ Transplants, and Autoimmune Diseases” which provides helpful tips for preparing and serving food to older adults. This publication is available through the FDA’s website at bit.ly/3Hb16SK.

Smith is an assistant professor and statewide consumer food specialist for Washington State University. She can be reached at food.safety@wsu.edu. If you have a food safety question you would like to see appear in this column, send your question to us at food.safety@wsu.edu.

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