Keeping residents safe from food-borne illnesses is one of your most important tasks.
One of life’s greatest joys is eating delicious food. Senior care facilities that offer a better gustatory experience to residents often have a leg up on the competition. Tasty, healthy food can be a big draw for potential residents (and those in charge of their care decisions).
But food preparation in any institutional setting offers certain challenges, and keeping residents safe — in addition to well-nourished — isn’t always easy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that about 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne illness each year, which works out to about 1 in 6 people.
There are more than 250 foodborne diseases that can cause these problems, but “most of them are infections caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites,” according to the CDC. Toxins and chemical contaminants can also wreak havoc. About 128,000 people are hospitalized each year with foodborne illnesses, 3,000 of whom die.
Older adults are particularly vulnerable to infection from foodborne illnesses, and they often have pre-existing health conditions that can weaken the immune system’s ability to fight off pathogens. Changes in sensory ability also mean older adults may be less able to detect by smell or taste that food has gone “off.”
The Association of Nutrition & Foodservice Professionals notes in a position paper that as the senior population grows and the population residing in residential care facilities increases, “there will be greater numbers of seniors at risk for foodborne illness. The person who manages the foodservice within these communities plays a vital role in protecting the clients in their care from foodborne illness.”
Despite the challenges, with careful preparation and attention to detail, you can reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses in your long-term care facility. State agencies inspect kitchens at assisted living communities and skilled nursing facilities, but your aim should be to do better than to simply pass inspection. Follow these best practices to help keep your foodservice areas in tip-top shape.
- Pay attention to hygiene. Everyone who’s involved in preparing or serving food should wash their hands thoroughly for at least 30 seconds prior to coming into contact with food and after using the restroom or coming into contact with any potentially contaminated products, such as raw chicken. Wearing clean gloves, masks and aprons can also cut down on the potential transference of pathogens, such as E. coli.
Food service workers should also remove or properly secure jewelry and any other personal items that could potentially fall off. Ditto for hair — it should be tucked away in a hair net or hat to prevent stands from falling into food and onto food preparation areas.
- Keep your work space and utensils clean. Ensure that all kitchen utensils and tools are sterile prior to cooking and throughout the food prep process. The USDA recommends washing hands and surfaces often and using a sanitizing solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water.
- Don’t cross contaminate. Keep raw meat, poultry, and fish away from other food. The USDA advises washing the cutting board, utensils, and countertops with hot, soapy water after food prep. If you’re marinating meats, store them in a covered dish in the refrigerator rather than at room temperature, and never re-use marinade.
- Handle perishable items carefully. It’s imperative that cold things stay cold and hot things stay hot — that middle temperature zone is where bacteria and other pathogens really thrive. The USDA recommends refrigerating perishable food within two hours and within one hour when the air temperature is above 90 degrees F. And when serving foods, hot items should be held at 140 degrees F or hotter and cold foods should be kept at 40 degrees F or colder.
- Don’t let items linger. Cook or freeze fresh poultry, fish and ground meats within two days. Other types of meat, including beef, veal, lamb and pork, need to be cooked or frozen within three to five days, the USDA says.
- Select items carefully. The USDA recommends never choosing “meat or poultry in packaging that is torn or leaking.” If any items in your refrigerator or pantry show signs of tampering or damage, don’t use them. Throw them out. And be sure to wrap all food items you’ll be storing in the fridge or pantry tightly in air-tight containers, foil, or plastic wrap to prevent air from getting to the food.
- Look out for damaged cans. Although canned food has an indefinite shelf life under normal conditions, if cans have been stored in a location where temperatures have risen above 90 degrees F or the can has been damaged in some way — it’s rusted, dented or swollen — discard it immediately.
- Thaw frozen items safely. Moving frozen items from the freezer to the refrigerator is a safe way to bring them up to temperature. To thaw them faster, try sealing items in a waterproof plastic bag and submerge in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes. Or use the microwave to thaw faster. Cook thawed items immediately. The USDA notes that meat and poultry that has been defrosted in the refrigerator can be refrozen before or after cooking. But if the item has been thawed using either the microwave or the cold-water method, it needs to be fully cooked before it can be refrozen.
- Cook meat to the right temp. For raw beef, pork, lamb, veal steaks, chops and roasts, cook to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F. Meat should rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming. Ground meats should be cooked to 160 degrees F and poultry should reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees F as measured with a food thermometer.
To help oversee all of the ins and outs of the kitchen and safe food handling needs, the ANFP recommends that long-term care facilities add a dietary manager accredited by the Certifying Board for Dietary Managers. These individuals are trained in safe food handling and are able to train other staff members in appropriate food handling practices at long-term care facilities. They can assist with reducing the risk of food borne illnesses and can also help ensure residents’ nutritional needs are met.
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