Freshen up food safety knowledge

Sticky note that says "Food safety, Are you at risk?"

By Chelsea Reinberg

Raise your hand if you ever took something out of the refrigerator, stared long and hard at it and asked yourself how long it had been there, or if you have questioned if something was safe to eat.

If you sheepishly raised your hand, do not feel embarrassed as you are not alone. Did you know that each year one in six Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses? Food safety is important for everyone, but it is especially important for older adults to take extra precautions to prevent foodborne illnesses.

Adults 65 years and older have an increased risk of hospitalization and more severe complications from foodborne illnesses compared to the general healthy population. This is because as our bodies age they don’t work as well and our organs and systems that help fight off dangerous bacteria are not as effective at protecting and keeping us safe.

Factors that increase older adults’ risk of complications from foodborne illness are weakened immune system, lower stomach acid (stomach acid helps reduce the amount bad bacteria in our gastrointestinal (GI) tract), less good bacteria in GI tract, chronic conditions like diabetes or kidney disease and taking medications that may limit the body’s ability to fight off bad bacteria.

Foodborne illness is caused by consuming food or beverages that have been contaminated with bacteria, viruses or parasites. You cannot tell if a food is free from these dangerous pathogens by looking, smelling or tasting it!

Common causes of foodborne illness are due to contamination at harvest or during processing, improper cooking temperatures, poor handwashing and inappropriate handling of food like using the same knife to cut raw chicken and vegetables.

It is important that you and those who help prepare your food always follow these four food safety steps.

  • CLEAN all surfaces, cooking utensils and hands with warm soapy water before handling food or eating and often when cooking.
  • SEPARATE all raw meat, poultry and fish from cooked and fresh produce during shopping, storage and preparation. Don’t cross contaminate!
  • COOK all foods to the appropriate temperature to kill harmful bacteria. Be sure to use a food thermometer! Leftovers, soups and casseroles should be heated to a minimum of 165 °F before consuming.
  • CHILL cooked and raw foods immediately or within two hours if you are not eating right away. Keep your refrigerator set to 40 °F or below and your freezer at 0 °F or below.

In addition to following the four food safety steps, the best way to prevent foodborne illness is to avoid consumption of risky foods like raw or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs or seafood; deli meat unless heated; unwashed fruits and vegetables; raw or unpasteurized milk; raw sprouts (like alfalfa); soft cheese unless it is made with pasteurized milk; and refrigerated leftovers older than four days.

For more food safety information visit

Chelsea Reinberg is the nutrition, food safety and health agent at the Johnson County K-State Research and Extension Office.