We’ve all likely experienced food-borne illness—along with the cramps and nausea that occur when you eat or drink something contaminated with disease-causing bacteria, viruses, parasites, mold or toxins. While uncomfortable, the condition typically resolves quickly for most, but seniors aged 65 and older are at greater risk for hospitalization, long-term health consequences and death.
As a caregiver, it’s important to pay a little closer attention to the risk of food-borne illness, especially as your loved one grows older. But first you need to understand why the risk of food-borne illness is so much higher in older adults.
Reasons for increased risk of food-borne illness
A healthy gut plays an important role in fending off bad bugs. The stomach plays an important role in limiting the number of bacteria entering the small intestine, so low levels of stomach acid increase the likelihood of infection if contaminants are ingested. However, older adults experience food-borne illness in greater numbers due to normal age-related physiological changes like a decrease in stomach acid. And medications and underlying health conditions also contribute to diminished gut function.
Good nutrition is also an important factor in maintaining a healthy immune system, but older adults are more vulnerable to malnutrition due to meal skipping and diminished nutrient absorption.
Kitchen disorganization and messiness also can play a role: A fridge or pantry filled with past-their-prime leftovers or expired items makes it more likely a senior will suffer from food poisoning.
Refrigerator organization tips to reduce food illness risk:
- Rearrange shelves so items are within easy reach. Accessibility encourages better habits.
- Add space-saving organization solutions, like pull-out racks, lazy Susans or hanging baskets.
- Set alarms or write reminders, including when to eat and scheduling time to clean out the fridge.
Four food handling steps to avoid illness
While the food supply in the U.S. is among the safest in the world, it can still be a source of infection. But food-borne illness can be prevented by following four steps: clean, separate, cook, chill.
1. Clean – wash hands, surfaces and produce
Bacteria and germs are everywhere, including the kitchen. Make hygiene a priority and clean before, during and after preparing and eating food.
“Consumers play a key role when it comes to preventing food-borne illness and keeping their families safe and healthy,” said Mindy Brashears, PhD, former deputy under secretary for food safety at USDA. “The research is clear: Consumers do not wash their hands at critical steps of food preparation, which can lead to cross-contamination of harmful bacteria.”
Follow some simple steps in the kitchen:
- Always wash hands with warm soapy water using proper technique.
- Disinfect frequently touched elements with a household cleaner, soap and water, bleach or vinegar solution (including doorknobs, cabinet and fridge handles, light switches and countertops).
- Change and wash kitchen towels and textiles frequently.
- Soak sponges in a 10% bleach solution for five minutes.
- Rinse all fruits and vegetables before eating, cutting or cooking. For extra protection, sterilize produce with a homemade white vinegar solution: Combine 1½ cups water with ½ cup white vinegar and add a teaspoon of lemon juice. Soak or spray veggies with the mixture and dry with a clean towel. Here’s how to wash your veggies the right way.
- Wash the outside of vegetables and fruit like cucumbers and watermelon even if you’re discarding the skin, as bacteria on the exterior can be transferred to the inside when you cut or peel them.
2. Separate – don’t cross-contaminate
Raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs can spread germs to ready-to-eat food unless you keep them separated.
- Use separate cutting boards and tools.
- When grocery shopping, keep raw meat, poultry, seafood and their juices away from other foods.
- Separate from all other raw and cooked foods in the refrigerator. Store in sealed or covered containers and place at the bottom of the fridge.
3. Cook foods to safe internal temperatures
- Cook foods to recommended correct temperatures and always use a food thermometer.
- Avoid eating raw or undercooked fish, shellfish or food containing raw or undercooked seafood.
- Microwave food thoroughly.
4. Chill – refrigerate food promptly
Bacteria can multiply rapidly if left at room temperature or in the “Danger Zone” between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Refrigerate food within two hours after cooking or purchasing and within an hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Frozen food should remain frozen until it’s used and thawed at 41 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Food can also be thawed under running water at 70 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Avoid refreezing thawed food.
- Know when to throw food out.
Eggs are a known culprit in causing food-borne illness, so avoid foods that contain raw or undercooked eggs, including homemade Caesar salad dressing, raw cookie dough and eggnog. Use pasteurized eggs and egg products when preparing recipes that call for raw or undercooked eggs, and always store eggs correctly to keep them fresh and safe to eat.
Food storage safety tips
After grocery shopping, store food right away. Many fruits and vegetables are best when kept cool, not cold—50 to 60 F is ideal. Colder temperatures can stop the ripening process and, in some cases, refrigeration can break down cell walls in fruits or vegetables, turning them mealy.
The following storage guidelines for vegetables and fruits apply to whole, intact items. Once they become overripe or develop even one soft spot, or if the skin is broken, they need to be eaten, cooked, refrigerated or frozen.
In addition to keeping the temperature in your fridge at 40 F (the freezer should be at 0 F), you can take additional steps to ensure your refrigerated foods stay as safe as possible:
- Avoid “overpacking”: Cold air must circulate around refrigerated foods to keep them properly chilled.
- Wipe up spills right away: The Listeria bacteria can grow at refrigerated temperatures.
- Keep it covered: Store refrigerated foods in lidded containers or sealed storage bags, and check leftovers daily for spoilage.
- Check expiration dates: If food is past its “use by” date, discard it. And follow the simple rule of: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Stefani Sassos, deputy director of the Good Housekeeping Institute, recommends organizing refrigerated food according to temperature zones (the back and bottom of the fridge are the coldest areas). Following these guidelines extends shelf life and contributes to food safety:
- Upper shelves: Foods that don’t need to be cooked
- Middle and lower: Dairy products
- Bottom: Wrapped meats and fish
- Drawers: Veggies and fruit
- Door: Foods with preservatives
Be sure to inventory and sanitize the fridge weekly; make this task part of your kitchen cleaning routine. Many seniors struggle with knowing when to throw out leftover food. Use a reusable food label kit to mark food content and date; most leftovers should be eaten within three to four days.
Containers that keep foods safe
Sassos said her team continually tests containers for safety and usability. Their current overall pick is the Rubbermaid Brilliance food storage container set because the units are BPA-free, transparent and stackable. For durability, they recommend the Anchor Hocking Trueseal glass containers. The versatile containers go from fridge to microwave and are oven-safe up to 425 F.
Other testing labs give high marks to the 18-piece oven-safe Glasslock set, which testers liked for the solid design and BPA-free lids featuring rubber gaskets and latches, making them completely airtight, spill and leak-proof. And the Chef’s Path 14-Piece Airtight Food Storage Container set has been described as the “Rolls-Royce” of food storage in Amazon reviews. Containers are pantry, fridge and freezer-friendly, and the chalkboard labels and markers lend high style to kitchen organization.
Food safety gets a boost with tech
Mobile phones can be a handy tool to assist efforts in preventing food-borne illness. The USDA free FoodKeeper app helps users understand food and beverage storage and their top-rated Ask Karen app provides expert knowledge on food safety and how to prevent food poisoning. The 24/7 virtual representative answers questions like how long to store meat in the refrigerator, time it takes to boil an egg, or whether it’s better to use wooden or plastic cutting boards.