Older Americans are more at risk for food borne illnesses because their immune systems decline with age. That’s why it’s especially important to be careful about storing and cooking foods.

Although many of you have been preparing foods for decades with no ill effects, the situation has changed. There are new bacteria and new strains of old bacteria that require new methods to ensure safety.

Karin Haugrud / Seniors on the Move
Karin Haugrud / Seniors on the Move

All food can carry microorganisms or chemical agents that may cause illness when eaten. But, safe food handling practices can prevent growth of bacteria to lessen the possibility of food borne illness. Most cases can be controlled by proper production, processing and preparation. Just follow four basic rules -- Clean, Separate, Cook and Chill -- and you will fight the bacteria that can cause food borne illness.

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Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often. Bacteria can be present throughout the kitchen, including on cutting boards, utensils, sponges and counter tops. Wash utensils, equipment, counter tops and other work surfaces with hot, soapy water before and after working with food. Wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, blowing your nose or handling pets. Cleanliness every step of the way keeps bacteria at bay.

Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate. Cross-contamination is the scientific word for how bacteria can be spread from one food product to another. Thoroughly clean all dishes, utensils and work surfaces with soap and water after each use. It is especially important to clean equipment and work surfaces that have been used for raw food before you use them for cooked food.

By rinsing utensils, work surfaces, cutting boards, meat grinders, blenders, and meat slicers with a bleach solution, you prevent the cooked food from becoming contaminated with bacteria that may have been present in the raw food.

Cook: Cook to the proper temperatures. They say you can’t always judge a book by its cover. Well, this is also true for cooked foods. You can’t judge if your food is done by looking at the color. Color can be misleading. Using a food thermometer is the only reliable way to tell that food has reached a high enough temperature to destroy harmful bacteria. It is essential to use a food thermometer when cooking meat, poultry, and egg products to prevent undercooking and consequently a food borne illness.

Chill out: Did you know at room temperature, bacteria in food can double every 20 minutes? The more bacteria there is, the greater the chance you could become sick. Set your refrigerator no higher than 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the freezer unit at 0.

Refrigerate foods quickly because cold temperatures keep most harmful bacteria from multiplying. Disease-causing microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses and parasites grow very slowly at low temperatures, multiply rapidly in mid-range temperatures, and are killed at high temperatures.

For safety, perishable foods must be held at proper cold temperatures to inhibit bacterial growth or cooked to temperatures high enough to kill harmful microorganisms.

This article is made possible with Older Americans Act dollars from the regional Dancing Sky Area Agency on Aging. Call the Senior LinkAge Line at 1-800-333-2433 to speak with an information specialist.