FDA/Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
USDA/Food Safety and Inspection Service
October 2000; updated November 2004; slightly updated September 2006

Various foods and the text: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

To Your Health!
Food Safety for Seniors

(Also available in PDF, 852 KB, and Spanish PDF, 669 KB)

Seniors have a lifetime of experience shopping, preparing and eating food. And fortunately, Americans enjoy one of the safest most healthful food supplies in the world. But a lot has changed over your lifetime--from the way food is produced and distributed, to the way it is prepared and eaten.

What is also changing is your ability to fight-off dangerous bacteria that may invade your body through the food you eat.

The good news is that well-known saying -- "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" -- remains true. Preventing the growth of dangerous microorganisms in food is the key to reducing the millions of illnesses and thousands of deaths each year.

You may already know a lot about how to prevent illness from mishandled food. Federal studies show that older adults do a better job of handling food safely than any other age group. Even so, when it comes to staying safe, you can never know too much.

This publication will help you learn more about what many of us call "food poisoning" -- the experts call it foodborne illness. We'll look at:

Various packaged foods, an image of the earth and the
text: Today food in your local grocery store comes from all over the world.

How Times Have Changed:

A lot has changed over your lifetime -- including the way food is produced and distributed. It used to be that food was produced close to where people lived. Many people shopped daily, and prepared and ate their food at home. Eating in restaurants was saved for special occasions. Today, food in your local grocery store comes from all over the world. And nearly 50 percent of the money we spend on food goes to buy food that others prepare, like "carry out" and restaurant meals.

Another thing that has changed is our awareness and knowledge of illnesses that can be caused by harmful bacteria in food:

One of the other things that we know today is that some people -- including people over 65 -- can be more susceptible to getting sick from bacteria in food.

But seniors who take care to handle food safely can help keep themselves healthy.

Why Some People Face Special Risks:

Some people are more likely to get sick from harmful bacteria that can be found in food. And once they are sick, they face the risk of more serious health problems, even death.

A variety of people may face these special risks -- pregnant women and young children, people with chronic illnesses and weakened immune systems and older adults, including people over 65.

Why are older adults more susceptible to foodborne illness?

Everyone's health is different, including his or her ability to fight off disease. But immune systems weaken as we age. In addition, stomach acid also decreases as we get older -- and stomach acid plays an important role in reducing the number of bacteria in our intestinal tracts -- and the risk of illness.

Plus underlying illnesses such as diabetes, some cancer treatments, and kidney disease may increase a person's risk of foodborne illness.

An image of a  wristwatch on a January calendar and the
text: You could become sick anytime from 20 minutes to 6 weeks after eating.

Recognizing Foodborne Illness:

It can be difficult for people to recognize when harmful bacteria in food have made them sick. For instance, it's hard to tell if food is unsafe, because you can't see, smell or taste the bacteria it may contain.

Sometimes people think their foodborne illness was caused by their last meal. In fact, there is a wide range of time between eating food with harmful bacteria and the onset of illness. Usually foodborne bacteria take 1 to 3 days to cause illness. But you could become sick anytime from 20 minutes to 6 weeks after eating some foods with dangerous bacteria. It depends on a variety of factors, including the type of bacteria in the food.

Sometimes foodborne illness is confused with other types of illness. If you get foodborne illness, you might be sick to your stomach, vomit, or have diarrhea. Or, symptoms could be flu-like with a fever and headache, and body aches. The best thing to do is check with your doctor. And if you become ill after eating out, also call your local health department so they can investigate.

Foodborne illness can be dangerous, but is often easy to prevent. By following the basic rules of food safety, you can help prevent foodborne illness for yourself and others.


Food Safety at Home

Just follow four basic rules -- Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill -- and you will Fight BAC!® (bacteria that can cause foodborne illness.) Fight BAC!® is a national education campaign designed to teach everyone about food safety. Keep these Fight BAC!® rules in mind. Tell your friends and family and grandchildren to join the team and get them to be "BAC-Fighters" too.

Rule 1: Clean, image of handwashing.

Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often

Bacteria can be present throughout the kitchen, including on cutting boards, utensils, sponges and counter tops. Here's how to Fight BAC!®

Rule 2: Separate, image of food on cutting boards and the text: Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other foods.

Separate: Don't cross-contaminate

Cross-contamination is the scientific word for how bacteria can be spread from one food product to another. This is especially true when handling raw meat, poultry and seafood, so keep these foods and their juices away from foods that aren't going to be cooked. Here's how to Fight BAC!®

Cook: Cook to proper temperatures

Rule 3: Cook, image of a steaming pot and the text: Foods
are properly cooked when they are heated for a long
enough time and at a high enough temperature to kill the harmful bacteria.

Food safety experts agree that foods are safely cooked when they are heated for a long enough time and at a high enough temperature to kill the harmful bacteria that cause foodborne illness. The best way to Fight BAC!® is to:

Image of a turkey and a food thermometer and the text:
Use a food thermometer to make sure foods have reached a safe internal temperature.

Apply the Heat!

Cooking food--especially raw meat, poultry, fish and eggs--to a safe minimum internal temperature kills harmful bacteria. Thoroughly cook food as follows*:
Raw Food Internal Temperature

Ground Products
Beef, veal, lamb, pork 160°F
Chicken, turkey 165°F

Beef, Veal, Lamb Roasts & steaks

medium-rare 145°F
medium 160°F
well-done 170°F

Chops, roast, ribs
     medium 160°F
     well-done 170°F
Ham, fully cooked 140°F
Ham, fresh 160°F
Sausage, fresh 160°F

Poultry (Turkey & Chicken)
Whole bird at least 165°F
Breast at least 165°F
Legs & thighs at least 165°F
Stuffing (cooked separately) 165°F

Fried, poached yolk & white are firm
Casseroles 160°F
Sauces, custards 160°F

Fish flakes with a fork

*This chart provides guidance for cooking foods at home.

Thermometer Tips

Image of 3 food thermometers: 2 Dial (Oven-Safe and
Instant-Read) and 1 Digital Instant-Read.

Use a food thermometer to make sure foods have been properly cooked to a safe internal temperature. Plus you won't over cook your food.

There are several types of thermometers available:

  • Dial oven-safe: This type of thermometer is inserted into the food at the beginning of the cooking time and remains in the food throughout cooking.

    By checking the thermometer as the food cooks, you will know exactly when thick cuts of meat, such as roasts or turkeys, are cooked to the safe temperature. This type of thermometer is not appropriate for use with food that is thin, like boneless chicken breast.

  • Dial instant-read: This thermometer is not designed to stay in the food during cooking.

    When you think the food is cooked to the safe temperature, you check it with the instant-read thermometer. To do this, insert the instant-read thermometer into the thickest part of the food. Insert to the point marked on the probe--usually to a depth of 2 inches. About 15 to 20 seconds are required for the temperature to be accurately displayed.

    This type of thermometer can be used with thin food, such as chicken breasts or hamburger patty--simply insert the probe sideways, making sure that the tip of the probe reaches the center of the meat.

  • Digital instant-read: This type of thermometer does not stay in the food during cooking--you check the temperature when you think the food is cooked.

    The advantage of this type of thermometer is that the heat-sensing device is in the tip of the probe. Place the tip of the probe in the center of the thickest part of the food--at least 1/2 inch deep. About 10 seconds are required for the temperature to be accurately displayed.

    This type of thermometer is good to use for checking the temperature of a thin food like a hamburger patty. Just insert the probe from the top or sideways to a depth of 1/2 inch.

    (FYI: Pop-up timers are reliable within 1 to 2 degrees, but it's best to check with a food thermometer.)

Rule 4: Chill, image of a refrigerator and the text:
Refrigerate foods quickly because cold temperatures keep most harmful bacteria from growing.

Chill: Did You Know?

At room temperature, bacteria in food can double every 20 minutes. The more bacteria there are, the greater the chance you could become sick.

So, refrigerate foods quickly because cold temperatures keep most harmful bacteria from multiplying. A lot of people think it will harm their refrigerator to put hot food inside--it's not true. It won't harm your refrigerator and it will keep your food--and you--safe.

Set your home refrigerator to 40°F or below and the freezer unit to 0°F or below. Check the temperature occasionally with an appliance thermometer.

Then, Fight BAC!® by following these steps:

Safe Thawing:

Never thaw foods at room temperature. You can safely thaw food in the refrigerator. Four to five pounds takes 24 hours to thaw.

You can also thaw food outside the refrigerator by immersing in cold water. Change the water every half hour to keep the water cold. Cook immediately after thawing.

You can thaw food in the microwave, but if you do, be sure to continue cooking right away.

Refrigerator and Freezer Storage Chart

Eggs Refrigerator
Fresh, in shell 4-5 weeks Don't freeze
Hardcooked 1 week Doesn't freeze well
Egg substitutes, opened 3 days Don't freeze
Egg substitutes, unopened 10 days 1 year

Dairy Products Refrigerator
Milk 1 week 3 months
Cottage cheese 1 week Doesn't freeze well
Yogurt 1-2 weeks 1-2 months
Commercial mayonnaise (refrigerate after opening) 2 months Don't freeze

Vegetables Raw Blanched/cooked
Beans, green or waxed 3-4 days 8 months
Carrots 2 weeks 10-12 months
Celery 1-2 weeks 10-12 months
Lettuce, leaf 3-7 days Don't freeze
Lettuce, iceberg 1-2 weeks Don't freeze
Spinach 1-2 days 10-12 months
Squash, summer 4-5 days 10-12 months
Squash, winter 2 weeks 10-12 months
Tomatoes 2-3 days 2 months

Deli Foods Refrigerator
Entrees, cold or hot 3-4 days 2-3 months
Store-prepared or homemade salads 3-5 days Don't freeze

Hot dogs & Luncheon Meats Refrigerator
Hot dogs, opened package 1 week  
Hot dogs, unopened package 2 weeks 1-2 months in freezer wrap
Lunch meats, opened 3-5 days 1-2 months
Lunch meats, unopened 2 weeks 1-2 months

TV Dinners/Frozen Casseroles Refrigerator
Keep frozen until ready to serve 3-4 months

Fresh Meat Refrigerator
Beef-steaks, roasts 3-5 days 6-12 months
Pork-chops, roasts 3-5 days 4-6 months
Lamb-chops, roasts 3-5 days 6-9 months
Veal-roast 3-5 days 4-6 months

Fresh Poultry Refrigerator
Chicken or turkey, whole 1-2 days 1 year
Chicken or turkey pieces 1-2 days 9 months

Fresh Fish Refrigerator
Lean fish (cod, flounder, etc.) 1-2 days 6 months
Fatty fish (salmon, etc.) 1-2 days 2-3 months

Ham Refrigerator
Canned ham (label says "keep refrigerated") 6-9 months Don't freeze
Ham, fully cooked (Half & slices) 3-5 days 1-2 months

Bacon & Sausage Refrigerator
Bacon 1 week 1 month
Sausage, raw (pork, beef or turkey) 1-2 days 1-2 months
Pre-cooked smoked breakfast links/patties 1 week 1-2 months

Leftovers Refrigerator
Cooked meat, meat dishes, egg dishes, soups, stews and vegetables 3-4 days 2-3 months
Gravy and meat broth 1-2 days 2-3 months
Cooked poultry and fish 3-4 days 4-6 months

Fresh Produce

  • The quality of certain perishable fresh fruits and vegetables (such as strawberries, lettuce, herbs and mushrooms) can be maintained best by storing in the refrigerator. If you are uncertain whether an item should be refrigerated to maintain quality, ask your grocer.
  • All produce purchased pre-cut or peeled should be refrigerated for safety as well as quality.
  • Produce cut or peeled at home should be refrigerated within two hours.
  • Any cut or peeled produce that is left at room temperature for more than two hours should be discarded

Special Foods/Special Advice

Some foods may contain bacteria that can be especially harmful to older adults and cause serious illness. This section highlights foods older adults are advised not to eat. It also explains important safe food handling tips for some ready-to-eat foods commonly found in the refrigerated section of your grocery store.

Foods Seniors are Advised Not to Eat

To reduce risks of illness from bacteria in food, seniors (and others who face special risks of illness) are advised not to eat:

  • Raw fin fish and shellfish, including oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops.
  • Hot dogs and luncheon meats, unless they are reheated until steaming hot.
  • Raw or unpasteurized milk or soft cheeses (such as Feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican-style cheese) unless they are labeled "made with pasteurized milk".
  • Refrigerated pates or meat spreads. Canned or shelf-stable pates and meat spreads may be eaten.
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood unless it is contained in a cooked dish, such as a casserole. Refrigerated smoked seafood, such as salmon, trout, whitefish, cod, tuna, or mackerel, is often labeled as "nova-style," "lox," "kippered," "smoked," or "jerky." These products are found in the refrigerator section or sold at deli counters of grocery stores and delicatessens. Canned or shelf-stable smoked seafood may be eaten.
  • Raw or lightly cooked egg or egg products containing raw eggs such as salad dressings, cookie or cake batter, sauces, and beverages such as egg nog. (Foods made from commercially pasteurized eggs are safe to eat.)
  • Raw meat or poultry.
  • Raw sprouts (alfalfa, clover, and radish)
  • Unpasteurized or untreated fruit or vegetable juice (These juices will carry a warning label.)
  • New information on food safety is constantly emerging. Recommendations and precautions are updated as scientists learn more about preventing foodborne illness. You need to be aware of and follow the most current information on food safety. See the information at the end of this document for ways to learn about food safety updates.

Reheating ready-to-eat foods:

It's important to reheat some refrigerated foods that you buy pre-cooked. That's because these foods can become re-contaminated with bacteria after they have been processed and packaged at the plant.

These foods include: hot dogs, luncheon meats, cold cuts, and other deli-style meat and poultry products that are kept refrigerated.

Image of take out food and the text: Hot or cold
ready-prepared meals are perishable and can cause illness when mishandled.

Eating Out, Bringing In

Let's face it. Sometimes it's just easier and more enjoyable to let someone else do the cooking. And for today's older adults there are many eating options. All of these options, however, do have food safety implications that you need to be aware of.

Bringing In: Complete Meals to Go and Home Delivered Meals

When you want to eat at home but don't feel like cooking or aren't able to, where do you turn?

Hot or cold ready-prepared meals are perishable and can cause illness when mishandled. Proper handling is essential to ensure the food is safe.

The 2-Hour Rule

Image of a thermometer and the temperature various foods
should be heated to prevent harmful bacteria. Harmful
bacteria can grow rapidly in the danger zone (between 40 degrees and 140 degrees).

Harmful bacteria can multiply in the "Danger Zone" (between 40 and 140°F). So remember the 2-hour rule. Discard any perishable foods left at room temperature longer than 2 hours.

(When temperatures are above 90°F, discard food after 1 hour!)

Putting the 2-hour rule into action:

HOT FOODS: When you purchase hot cooked food, keep it hot. Eat and enjoy your food within 2 hours to prevent harmful bacteria from multiplying.

If you are not eating within 2 hours--and you want to keep your food hot--keep your food in the oven set at a high enough temperature to keep the food at or above 140°F. (Use a food thermometer to check the temperature.) Side dishes, like stuffing, must also stay hot in the oven. Covering food will help keep it moist.

However, your cooked food will taste better if you don't try to keep it in the oven for too long. For best taste, refrigerate the food and then reheat when you are ready to eat. Here's how:

COLD FOODS should be eaten within 2 hours or refrigerated or frozen for eating at another time.


You may wish to reheat your meal, whether it was purchased hot and then refrigerated or purchased cold initially.

Eating Out

Image of a restaurant table and the text: All food service
establishments are required to follow food safety guidelines set by State and local health officials.

Whether you're eating out at a restaurant, a Senior Center, or a fast food diner, it can be both a safe and enjoyable experience. All food service establishments are required to follow food safety guidelines set by State and local health departments. But you can also take actions to insure your food's safety. Keep these Fight BAC!® rules in mind: Clean, Cook, Chill.

Eating Out

Clean: When you go out to eat, look at how clean things are before you even sit down. If it's not up to your standards, you might want to eat somewhere else.

Cook: No matter where you eat out, always order your food cooked thoroughly to a safe internal temperature. Remember that foods like meat, poultry, fish, and eggs need to be cooked thoroughly to kill harmful bacteria. When you're served a hot meal, make sure it's served to you piping hot and thoroughly cooked, and if it's not, send it back.

Don't eat undercooked or raw foods, such as raw oysters or raw or undercooked eggs. Undercooked or raw eggs can be a hidden hazard in some foods like Caesar salad, custards and some sauces. If these foods are made with commercially pasteurized eggs, however, they are safe. If you are unsure about the ingredients in a particular dish, ask before ordering it.


Image of someone putting leftovers into the refrigerator
and the text: Go directly home after eating and put your leftovers in the refrigerator.

The Doggie Bag

It seems like meal portions are getting bigger and bigger these days. A lot of people are packing up these leftovers to eat later. Care must be taken when handling these leftovers. If you will not be arriving home within 2 hours of being served (1 hour if temperatures are above 90°F), it is safer to leave the leftovers at the restaurant.

Also, remember that the inside of a car can get very warm. Bacteria may grow rapidly, so it is always safer to go directly home after eating and put your leftovers in the refrigerator.

Some Senior Centers that provide meals do not allow food to be taken away from the site because they know how easy it is for bacteria to multiply to dangerous levels when food is left unrefrigerated too long. Check with your center for its policy on taking leftovers home.

Those are the food safety rules--the way you can help yourself and others Fight BAC!®

Just remember: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

If you have questions and you'd like to talk to an expert, please call the following toll-free hotlines:

The Food and Drug Administration Hotline can answer questions about safe handling of seafood, fruits and vegetables, as well as rules that govern food safety in restaurants and grocery stores. You can reach them by calling: 1-888-SAFEFOOD.

The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline can answer questions about safe handling of meat and poultry as well as many other consumer food issues. Call them at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854).

Or, on the World Wide Web

Consumer Advice for Seniors
www.FoodSafety.gov   |   Search/Subject Index   |   Disclaimers & Privacy Policy   |   Accessibility

Hypertext updated by dms/jbh/viv 2007-JUL-09