I recently gave a talk to a group of senior citizens at an assisted living center near me. My topic was updated food safety recommendations — I highlighted the latest news in food science and emphasized the need to be vigilant about food safety practices. Today’s bacteria are stronger, more pervasive in our lives and harder to control than in the past. Pesticide resistance and the overuse of antibiotics in animals and people has changed the medical community’s ability to maintain optimal health. This does not jive with the food safety habits seniors picked up in their younger days.
My audience seemed very happy to remember how, in the past, they could leave food out on the counter for hours and still eat it later. Or, when they would have barbecues — which became popular in the 1950s after World War II — they would use one plate for raw hamburger meat… and then put cooked burgers on the same plate after grilling. We cannot do that today!
Even the simple idea of using soap-and-water to wash hands has been updated with the introduction of hand-sanitizers everywhere, especially in assisted living centers.
Here is a list of the highlights I presented to my audience of seniors:
- Always wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. The easy way to remember this is to sing “Happy Birthday” to yourself while washing up. Wash your hands after using the bathroom, before and after food preparation, and certainly between handling raw meats and fresh fruits and vegetables.
- “Separate Don’t Cross Contaminate” is the new slogan from the FDA. When cooking use separate cutting boards for handling raw meats and for fruits and vegetables. Throw out old cutting boards and replace with new. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables with water before cutting, and wash the cutting board with hot soapy water when finished. If you want to sanitize your counters and knives, use a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of water.
- Do not leave prepared food out on the counter for more than 2 hours (or 1 hour in warm weather). Always refrigerate food at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, and have the temperature checked regularly to make sure your refrigerator is at proper temperature. Chilling food keeps most bacteria from growing.
- Cook foods to the proper temperature. Use a digital thermometer when roasting, grilling or baking raw meat fish or poultry. Proper cooking means that foods are cooked to a temperature high enough to kill harmful bacteria to prevent foodborne illness. When you use a digital thermometer to check internal food temperatures, you also prevent overcooking food. Cook eggs until the yolks and whites are firm.
- Cook to the proper temperature. Beef, veal, lamb and fish all cook to an internal temperature of 145 degrees. Ground beef should be cooked to at least 160 degrees. Poultry should be cooked to at least 165 degrees or higher. Reheating foods in the microwave is another area of concern as most people forget that microwave cooking is uneven leaving hot and cold spots. It is important to stop and stir occasionally to make sure all the contents cook evenly.
- When cooking soups or stews, it is OK to place hot food in the refrigerator immediately, provided you store the soups or stews in smaller quantity containers. This allows the contents to cool down equally so that bacteria cannot grow in the warm spots. When reheating soups, sauces and gravies, bring them up to a full boil before eating.
- Do not defrost food from the freezer on the counter. The proper place to defrost food is in the refrigerator or in the microwave. Speaking of refrigerators, don’t overstuff them with food; a free flow of cool air is necessary for proper refrigeration of food to occur.
Finally, seniors and those with compromised immune systems need to be especially careful about the safe purchase, storage and cooking preparation of the foods they eat. Raw, undercooked and unpasteurized foods may contain bacteria that cannot be challenged by the antibiotics we have available today anymore.
Remember, our best defense against food poisoning may be a simple as singing, “Happy Birthday.”