By Anna Hazard
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Seniors tend to be more vulnerable to dangerous bouts of food poisoning due to more weakened immune systems and chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, and gastrointestinal disorders that become more common with age. Medications taken for such conditions also pose a greater risk of possible side effects. Further complications can arise from older adults producing less stomach acid with which to combat ingested bacteria or having weakened kidneys being unable to properly filter it from the blood. Seniors are also more likely to have degenerating eyesight and sense of smell that keeps them from noticing signs of spoilage.
Particular care with food handling should be taken during summer time as the added ambient heat can spoil food faster than normal by leading to the accelerated reproduction of bacteria that causes food borne illnesses. The most common causes of food borne illnesses in the USA are the bacteria E.coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter, Clostridium perfringens and the Norovirus (Norwalk Virus). Food poisoning is often the result of poor hygiene with food handlers, undercooked & underwashed foods, as well as the improper storage of leftovers. Besides monitoring proper food temperatures, it's imperative that anyone who comes in contact with the food or any utensils/implements in its preparation should wash their hands with soap & water for at least 20 seconds before & after handling food.
The temperature danger zone where bacteria undergoes its most rapid growth is between 40 ° F (4°C) and 140 °F (60°C). In this range of temperatures the level of bacteria can double in as little as 20 minutes. Note that while temperatures below 40 °F will slow the reproduction of bacteria, foods will need to be frozen at or below 0 °F for long term storage to completely stop bacterial production. To combat this, make certain that cold food remains cold (at or below the 40°F mark in the fridge) and that heated foods be kept at 140 -145° before serving. All foods should be refrigerated within 2 hours of being exposed to room temperature. When the daily temperature is above 90°F food should be refrigerated within 1 hour instead.
Salads, Fruits, & Veggies
Chilled salads are popular during the hot summer days, but keep in mind that leafy greens (a salad staple and otherwise a healthy choice with their isoflavones and anti-oxidents) can easily be contaminated through exposure to manure & feces in fertilizer and with improper handling. As they are usually served raw and thus will undergo no cooking to kill off any potential bacteria, make certain that they are washed well (torn or chopped into manageable sizes & swished either manually or with a salad spinner). Even salad items advertised as "pre-washed" would benefit from this, as some studies have shown that pre-washed fruits & vegetables can still contain up to 90% of their original bacteria.
Other raw salad staples such as melons, citrus fruits, & tomatoes should also be washed well with their rinds or thick skins discarded as the bacteria Listeria can often be found on the outer skins, even if the inside of the fruit remains uncontaminated. Discard fruit that has its skin punctured (breaking the bacteria barrier), bruised, or has begun to spoil or grow moldy.
While raw sprouts are a common salad topper, they are grown in warm & humid conditions that are ideal for bacteria growth. With their small size to large surface ratio making a thorough cleaning rather complicated & time consuming, it's recommended that sprouts be cooked before serving to be on the safe side. This is especially true when it comes to senior diners or others who may have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to infection.
During the summer heat, chilled raw oysters & other shellfish are quite popular, but they can be a source of Vibrio parahaemolyticus and Vibrio vulnificus food poisoning by bacteria that would otherwise be killed off during the cooking process. These bacteria tend to spread amongst shellfish in warm coastal waters during the summer months and are particularly dangerous for people with chronic immune system disorders such as diabetes, liver disease, or cancer. Other raw sea food meat such as those present in certain types of sushi should also be avoided.
When it comes to other types of meats, make sure all meat is properly cooked as undercooked meat is a major cause of food poisoning. Poultry such as chicken and turkey (which are prime candidates for salmonella contamination) should be cooked to 165˚. Steaks should reach at least 145˚ and hamburgers 160˚. For the safest option, go well done with all meats reaching 165˚ before serving. During storage make certain that raw meat is kept separate from all other foods, especially those that will later be served raw or without further cooking. Cooked meat should be kept refrigerated for no longer than 2 days before freezing.
Also keep in mind that the more animals used in a particular dish, the greater danger for contamination or the presence of bacteria. For example, ground beef which is often comprised of flesh from several different cows is riskier than a specific cut of meat from a single cow.
While barbecue is a very popular way to serve food during the summer, some studies suggest that charred meat cooked over an open flame increases the risk of ingesting
cancer-causing carcinogenic compounds called PAHs and HCAs. To avoid overexposure to these compounds, eat barbecued meat in moderation. Meat should also be flipped regularly over the grill to avoid charring or overly burned bits should be cut off before being served. Marinating meat is sauces beforehand has also been indicated as slowing down the formation of HCAs during cooking.
Other ways to avoid the formation of these compounds is to switch to gas powered grills whose temperatures are easier to control than their charcoal-fueled alternatives or to pre-cook meat in an oven ahead of time to finish off with a few minutes over the grill to give it that barbecued flavoring.
Dairy, Eggs, & Other
Ice cream and its many variations hit their height of popularity during the hot summer months, but care should be taken as it contains several potential sources of food poisoning. To avoid the spread of bacteria, cold foods should be kept cold (below 40˚) at all times. Thus, frozen foods should be bought & brought last or eaten first (yes, dessert before the rest of the meal!) to limit their exposure to room temperatures.
In addition, make certain any dairy that's used in recipes is pasteurized as unpasteurized dairy is 150 times more likely to harbor food-borne bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria.
Avoid products that use raw or undercooked eggs as Salmonella can live both on the outside & inside of the shells of eggs. While adequate washing may get rid of the bacteria on the outside of the shells, extended heat would be required to kill the interior ones.
Samples recipes that can use raw eggs include home-made ice cream recipes, custard, caesar salad dressings, mayonnaise, and cookie dough. Similar to meat, any egg recipes that require the combining of several eggs together (such as Devilled eggs) present greater risks of contamination. These types of dishes should always be served while still hot or should be stored below 40˚ to prevent the spread of bacteria.