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Holiday food safety for older adults

Melissa Bess, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, Camden County, University of Missouri Extension


The holidays are a time where many people are preparing and handling foods for family members or friends. A few simple steps can ensure that everyone enjoys the holidays without symptoms of food borne illness.

Some people, including those over age 65, can be more susceptible to getting sick from bacteria in food, or food borne illness. Everyone can keep themselves healthy by handling food safely.

Listeriosis is a food borne illness more common in older adults. Listeria bacteria is present in raw foods, but may raw foods can also contaminate prepared foods if they come into contact with each other (known as cross contamination). In healthy people, this may cause no symptoms, but can be very dangerous for those over age 65. Symptoms include fever, headache, tiredness, aches, and pains, and may progress to more serious symptoms.

Older adults are more susceptible to food borne illness. Our immune systems get weaker as we age. Stomach acid, which helps reduce the amount of bacteria in our intestines, also decreases as we get older. And lastly, underlying illnesses can also affect the ability to fight off disease.

You could become sick anytime from a few minutes to a few weeks after eating foods with dangerous bacteria. It depends on a variety of factors, including the type of bacteria in the food.

To prevent food borne illness, practice the four basic rules of food safety: clean, separate, cook, and chill. There are easy tips to remember for each of those rules to prevent food borne illness.

Wash hands with soap and warm water before and after preparing foods as well as after using the bathroom, playing with pets, or changing diapers. Wash your cutting boards, dishes, utensils and surfaces with warm water and soap after preparing each food item, and before you go on to the next food. It’s best to use paper towels while cleaning surfaces as opposed to cloth towels. If cloth towels are used, wash them often in the hot water cycle.

Keep meats, poultry, and seafood separate from other foods in the shopping cart, shopping bags, and refrigerator. Use a different cutting board for meat, poultry, and seafood. If you cannot use separate cutting boards, make sure the cutting board is washed with warm water and soap after each use. Wash any surfaces that come into contact with raw meats, poultry, or seafood with warm water and soap. Do not use the same plate for raw meat and cooked meat. Use a fresh plate to place any cooked foods.

Use a clean meat thermometer to make sure meat and poultry have reached a high enough internal temperature. Roasts and steaks should reach at least 145F. Whole poultry should be cooked to 180F for doneness in the thigh. All poultry should reach an internal temperature of at least 165F; an internal temperature can be taken in the innermost part of the thigh or wing, or the thickest part of the breast. All three of these sites should be checked in whole poultry. Cook ground beef, where bacteria can spread during processing, to at least 160F. Fish should be cooked to 145F or until the flesh is opaque and is easily separated with a fork. Most food thermometers come with a guide showing this information.

Leftovers, perishable foods, or refrigerated foods should not be left out for more than 2 hours. Never thaw foods on the countertop; the best option is to thaw in the refrigerator, or in cool water that is changed every half hour. If food is to immediately be cooked, microwave thawing is appropriate.

Seniors are also not recommended to consume the following: raw meat, raw poultry, raw seafood, raw eggs, raw or unpasteurized milk, raw sprouts, or raw or unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juices. Take caution with soft cheeses, ready-to-eat cold meat or chicken, or pre-packaged salads. Safer options are hard cheeses, home cooked meat or hot carryout chicken, and homemade or fresh made salads.

By remembering and following these simple rules, you can prevent yourself and others from developing unpleasant food borne illnesses!


For more information contact contact Melissa Bess at 573-346-2644 or email at




Last update: Tuesday, May 05, 2009






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