Food Safety for the Young at Heart

One of the privileges of growing older is eating whatever you want right? Well, while this may be our attitude to life, it is unfortunate that we actually need to be more careful. Certain foods may contain harmful bacteria that won’t make the general population sick but can be a problem for the elderly (as well as for very young children, pregnant women, and those with chronic illnesses or compromised immune systems).

No one has established a given age for older adults to avoid certain foods. Age-related decline in health—and thus, the body’s ability to kill bacteria in food—varies from person to person. According to the FDA, however that most adults 75 years and older lack the stomach acid that can kill harmful bacteria. According to in the USA, elderly people exhibit the following physiological changes as they age:

  • The gastrointestinal tract holds onto food for a longer period of time, allowing bacteria to grow.
  • The liver and kidneys may not properly rid the body of foreign bacteria and toxins.
  • The stomach may not produce enough acid. The acidity helps to reduce the number of bacteria in our intestinal tract.
  • Underlying chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cancer, may also increase a person’s risk of foodborne illness.

These factors may impact on our ability to deal with foodborne illness compared to younger people.

While I am sure you don’t “feel” old, you should consider yourself “at-risk” if you are very underweight, have an accumulation of chronic diseases, or take a number of different medications. All of those circumstances are evidence of a weakened or declining immune system. If you’re getting more infections than you used to get, or taking longer to get over them, that’s a sign too.

So, what can you do?

Step 1: Watch what you eat

As you get on, there are some foods that may pose a higher risk and could be avoided:

  • Deli meats and other ready-to-eat meat and poultry products; smoked fish; refrigerated pates and meat spreads; soft cheeses such as feta, brie, Camembert, blue-veined cheeses and Mexican-style varieties- All of these foods can contain a type of bacteria called Listeria monocytogenes. Cooking kills it, but none of these foods are routinely heated at home—they’re all eaten cold. Listeria can cause problems ranging from flu-like symptoms to meningitis.
  • Caesar salad dressing; hollandaise sauce; eggnog; Key lime pie; cookie or cake batter - If these items contain raw, unpasteurized eggs, they may contain Salmonella bacteria, which can cause GI upset such as nausea and diarrhea and serious complications such as severe dehydration. Runny eggs and sunny-side-up eggs may contain salmonella too.
  • Raw mollusks, including oysters, clams, and mussels- These foods can contain Vibrio bacteria, which are capable of causing everything from stomach cramps to blood poisoning.
  • Alfalfa sprouts- Raw sprouts can contain the same bacterium found in undercooked hamburgers: E-Coli 0157:H7. (Sprouts can also harbour salmonella.)
  • Fresh, unpasteurized juice- Nothing tastes better than fresh juice bought by the roadside. But it’s safe only if it has been treated to kill harmful bacteria, including E. coli.

Step 2: Watch how you handle your food

It’s never too late to start practicing food safety in your home. If you are 65 or older, or prepare food for someone who is, the FDA suggests the following four steps:

Clean: Wash hands, utensils, and surfaces often. Harmful bacteria can spread and survive in many places.

Separate: Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs can spread illness-causing bacteria to ready-to-eat foods, so keep them separate from cooked foods. Always store them at the lowest shelf in your refrigerator to avoid dripping.

Cook: Food is safely cooked only when the internal temperature is high enough to kill germs that can make you sick. If you reheat food, make sure you do so thoroughly and rather let the food cool down before eating.

Chill: Refrigerate promptly. Bacteria that cause food poisoning multiply quickest between 4°C and 60°C.

These two steps can go a long way in making sure you don’t let unsafe food get in your way of a good game of golf or bridge


© Linda Jackson via Food Focus