Protecting Elders from Foodborne Illness

By Beth Scholer, CC, CDM, CFP

Severe Symptoms from Food

Foodborne illness effects over 128,000 people each year, many whom are older or suffer from chronic illness. Symptoms of foodborne illness can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, chills, pain and headache and can lead to hospitalizations or even death. Be able to recognize the symptoms of foodborne illness and have a plan of action if it is suspected in an elder.

Focus on Common Culprit Foods

In order for a food to make someone sick, it must be able to support the growth of pathogens-bacteria, viruses or parasites in food. Not all types of food can cause illness, but there are some that are common culprits in foodborne illness cases. Foods from animal sources and foods high in carbohydrates, protein and moisture cause the most problems. Special care must be taken when handling these foods.

Remember, food may not look spoiled or smell badly and still contain foodborne pathogens. Never taste food to see if it is “safe”. Even a few cells from a pathogen may be enough to cause severe illness.

Foods that are Commonly Known to Cause Foodborne Illness

  • Eggs (unless they have been pasteurized)
  • Milk and dairy products
  • Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck)
  • Meat (beef, pork, lamb)
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Raw fruits and vegetables, including lettuce and cut or peeled fruits and vegetables

When preparing and serving these foods, it’s important to remember the 4 Steps of Food Safety-Wash, Separate, Cook and Chill. Visit FDA’s website Food Safety for Older Adults for more details.

Avoid These Foods with Elders

Some foods should never be served to people with a compromised immune system (such as elderly, those with chronic disease or those on certain medications). This list contains foods that can put a person at high risk for foodborne illness. As a caregiver, you can inform the elder about that risk, but you must honor his or her wishes.

  • Raw or undercooked fish or shellfish (raw oysters, sushi, ceviche)
  • Undercooked eggs (sunny side up)
  • Unpasteurized dairy products
  • Raw seed spouts
  • Pate or meat spreads
  • Rare hamburgers
  • Hot dogs or deli meats (unless they have been reheated)*
  • Unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juice and cider

Try these Lower Risk Food Choices

There are plenty of lower risk food options for elders. Serve fully cooked fish or seafood (cooked to 145°F or reheated to 165°F). Use pasteruzied egg products in recipes where eggs may not be fully cooked. Avoid cheeses made from raw milk, such as Brie, feta and blue cheese. All unpasteruized dairy and fruit juices/cider must be labeled as “raw” or “unpasteruized”. Serve cooked seed sprouts. Make sure meat, meat spreads and hamburgers are cooked to safe temperatures and heat hotdogs, bologna, and deli meat to steaming hot (165°) before serving to elders.

*Listeria monocytogenes is a very dangerout bacteria that grows at refrigerated temperatures (40°F or below). This bacteria may cause severe illness, hospitalization, or even death. Reheating these foods until they are steaming hot destroys Listeria and makes these foods safe for elders to eat.

Elders can enjoy safe food when caregivers are aware of the risks of foodborne illness and follow the steps of food safety. Know common culprit foods and avoid foods that pose a high risk for illness.

Chef Beth Scholer is certified by the American Culinary Federation and Association of Nutrition and Foodservice Professionals. She is a food scientist, culinary instructor, author and founder of Caregivers Kitchen. She can be reached at


FDA. Food Safety for Older Adults. FDA/USDA. Sept. 2011. Web. 20 October 2015. 05.htm#common

Scholer, B. (2015) Culinary Skills for Caregivers. Lakewood, CA. Avid Readers Publishing Group.