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Food can be unsafe for many reasons. It might be contaminated by germs—microbes such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi-like molds. These microbes might have been present before the food was harvested or collected, or they could have been introduced during handling or preparation. In either case, the food might look fine but could make you very sick. Food can also be unsafe because it has “gone bad.” Sometimes, you may see mold growing on the surface.
For an older person, a food-related illness can be life threatening. As you age, you have more trouble fighting off microbes. Health problems, like diabetes or kidney disease, also make you more likely to get sick from eating foods that are unsafe. So, if you are over age 65, be very careful about how food is prepared and stored.
Some foods can be dangerous for an older person no matter what—so, if you are over 65, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends you avoid:
- Raw or undercooked fish, shellfish, meat, and poultry
- Refrigerated smoked fish (for example, lox)
- Hot dogs, deli meats, and luncheon meats (unless these are reheated to 165 °F)
- Raw or unpasteurized milk and milk products
- Soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, including feta, brie, camembert, blue, and queso fresco
- Raw or undercooked eggs or egg product, as found in cookie dough, eggnog, and some salad dressings
- Raw sprouts
- Unwashed fresh vegetables, including lettuce
- Unpasteurized juice from fruits and vegetables
Changing Taste and Smell
As you grow older, your senses of taste and smell might change. Or medicines might make things taste different. If you can’t rely on your sense of taste or smell to tell that food is spoiled, be extra careful about how you handle your food. If something doesn’t look, smell, or taste right, throw it out—don’t take a chance with your health.
Food safety starts with storing your food properly. Sometimes that’s as simple as following directions on the container. For example, if the label says “refrigerate after opening,” do that! It’s also a good idea to keep any canned and packaged items in a cool place.
When you are ready to use a packaged food, check the date on the label. That bottle of juice might have been in your cabinet so long it is now out of date. (See Reading Food Labels to understand the date on the food label.)
Try to use refrigerated leftovers within 3 or 4 days to reduce your risk of food poisoning. Throw away foods older than that or those that show moldy areas.
For recommended refrigerator and freezer storage times for common foods, download our Storing Cold Food tip sheet (PDF, 75K).
When preparing foods, follow four basic steps—clean, separate, cook, and chill.
Wash your hands and the counter with hot soapy water, and make sure your utensils are clean before you start to prepare food. Clean the lids of cans before opening. Rinse fruits and vegetables under running water, but do not use soap or detergent. Do not rinse raw meat or poultry before cooking—you might contaminate other things by splashing disease-causing microbes around without realizing it.
Keep your refrigerator clean, especially the vegetable and meat bins. When there is a spill, use hot soapy water to clean it up.
Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs (and their juices and shells) away from foods that won’t be cooked. That begins in your grocery cart—put raw vegetables and fruit in one part of the cart, maybe the top part.
Things like meat should be put in the plastic bags the store offers and placed in a separate part of the cart. At check-out, make sure the raw meat and seafood aren’t mixed with other items in your bags.
When you get home, keep things like raw meat separate from fresh fruit and vegetables (even in your refrigerator). Don’t let the raw meat juices drip on foods that won’t be cooked before they are eaten.
When you are cooking, it is also important to keep ready-to-eat foods like fresh produce or bread apart from food that will be cooked. Make sure your hands, counter, and cutting boards are clean before you begin. Use a different knife and cutting board for fresh produce than you use for raw meat, poultry, and seafood. Or, use one set, and cut all the fresh produce before handling foods that will be cooked.
Wash your utensils and cutting board in hot soapy water or the dishwasher, and clean the counter and your hands afterwards. If you put raw meat, poultry, or seafood on a plate, wash the plate in hot soapy water before reusing it for cooked food.
Use a food thermometer, put in the thickest part of the food you are cooking, to check that the inside has reached the right temperature. The chart below shows what the temperature should be inside food before you stop cooking it. No more runny fried eggs or hamburgers that are pink in the middle.
Bring sauces, marinades, soups, and gravy to a boil when reheating.
|Type of Food||Minimum Internal Temperature|
|All meats and seafood||145°F
(with a 3-minute rest time)
|All ground meats||160°F|
|Hot dogs and luncheon meats||165°F|
No matter what temperature you set your oven at, the temperature inside your food needs to reach the level shown here to be safe.
Keeping foods cold slows the growth of microbes, so your refrigerator should always be at 40°F or below. The freezer should be at 0°F or below. But just because you set the thermostat for 40°F doesn't mean it actually reaches that temperature. Use refrigerator/freezer thermometers to check.
Put food in the refrigerator within 2 hours of buying or cooking it. If the outside temperature is over 90°F, refrigerate within 1 hour. Put leftovers in a clean, shallow container that is covered and dated. Use or freeze leftovers within 3 to 4 days. For recommended refrigerator and freezer storage times for common foods, download our Storing Cold Food tip sheet (PDF, 75K).
It's nice to take a break from cooking or get together with others for a meal at a restaurant. But, do you think about food safety when you eat out? You should.
- Pick a place that looks clean.
- If your city or state requires restaurants to post a cleanliness rating near the front door, check it out.
- Don't be afraid to ask the waiter or waitress how items on the menu are prepared. For example, could you have the tuna cooked well instead of seared? Or, if you find out the Caesar salad dressing is made with raw eggs, ask for another salad dressing.
- Consider avoiding buffets. Sometimes food in buffets sits out for a while and might not be kept at the proper temperature—whether hot or cold.
Read more about healthy eating as you age.
For More Information on Food Safety
USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion
National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs
Updated: July 25, 2017