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  • Julie Cheney RN

Food safety for older people

There was a time when there were no dates on food items and we trusted your nose and eyes to tell us when food was passed usable. Now we have dates to give us an idea of when foods have passed their safe date or when they have passed the date they would normally be rotated off supermarket shelves. (That’s the best before date)

Some older people might still be unused to using the dates, they might not be able to see them, or they might have forgotten that these are in place. They could also be in a position of reduced senses in smell, taste and sight. Another issue is the habitual purchase of levels of food associated with greater numbers of people living in the home in the past. Even though there is only one person, or two, to buy for now, yet there is enough stored for fifteen people for four weeks! In our family, this is called the ‘siege mentality’, because if there was a month-long siege the entire family and their offspring could be fed on the food collection in the cupboard.

Other issues that can face some older people are their knowledge about food safety and their memory regarding food use. Knowledge can be a problem for older gentlemen who are widowers who have not been responsible for food preparation during their lives. It’s not as common for younger generations but many older men have never cooked whole meals for themselves before. I once cared for a couple who was malnourished because the wife had dementia and the husband had no cooking knowledge. He could boil eggs and make sandwiches. So that’s what they ate, every meal, every day.

Knowledge issues can also come to the fore when we think about the kinds of foods that are easily available now that were not available in the past. Some of these, such as condiments, would have been made on the day and used quickly, or not made or purchased at all. Now they are freely available and tempting to buy but knowing how to store them is uncertain.

Memory comes into play when someone might not remember that they had food in the fridge or when they brought fresh food into the fridge. For example, a roasted chicken. Perhaps it was purchased on the fortnightly shopping trip, but the person’s sense of time is a little muddled. They can’t remember if it’s this week or last week the chicken was bought. In fact, the chicken was bought on the Monday last week and it’s now the Saturday of the following week and the chicken has been in the fridge, half eaten for 12 days. Add to this the fact that older people’s gut health, stomach lining health and general metabolism can change as they age, it is possible for older people to be prone to food poisoning.

Eggs have their own special issues too. The proteins in eggs are perfect for growth of bacteria, after all they are meant to make little chickens from scratch! It’s hard to tell just looking at an egg how healthy it is. If an egg is infected it can easily contaminate all foods that it touches. Handling eggs requires good hand hygiene before and after handling. Rotating them in a timely manner is also important. They can be stored in the fridge for 6 weeks but outside the fridge there is nothing certain about their status. Keeping them outside the fridge also reduces the protein values in the egg.

Strategies can aid memory, knowledge and throughput of foods for older people who are adjusting to their food needs and use for their needs now. Following is a list of a whole range of options to be aware of. You might also have your own clever ways to keep food moving through the fridge and pantry in a timely, safe way.

Hand hygiene

  • reminding the person to wash hands prior to food prep.

  • having hand hygiene options easily available near food prep areas as a reminder

Opened condiments in the fridge not panty –

  • Maple syrup (grows mould otherwise

  • Mayonnaise (contains eggs – must be refrigerated immediately after opening)

  • Nut-based oil (unrefined oils can go rancid)

  • Tomato sauce/Ketchup (once opened, 1 month in the cupboard or can be for long periods)

  • Mustard (loses flavour if un-refrigerated)

Managing fresh foods

  • Stickers marked with the dates purchased

  • Containers marked with dates

  • Having areas in the fridge for foods purchased on certain weeks

  • Lists on the fridge of items purchased and time frames

  • Rotating menus where common purchases are made one week and alternates the next week (for people who always eat the same things!)

  • A fortnightly fridge clean out and product rotation

  • Eggs that are cracked can allow bacteria entry to the contents, so are best thrown away if not to be used immediately.

  • Eggs that are dirty increase the risk of contamination of contents so should be thrown away if bought as a commercial egg or at least washed or used quickly and refrigerated once clean if a home grown egg.

  • All food surfaces that a contaminated egg touches must be thoroughly cleaned.

  • If the person is buying fresh fish, ensure they are planning to cook it the night they have purchased it.

Of course, there a hundreds of other food safety tips that we should all follow. These are just a few and focused on common issues faced by older people. The Food Safety Information Council has lots more information for you at

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