Have you ever opened a container that's been in the back of your refrigerator for a few weeks and actually grimaced? I did that just yesterday. I'm not sure what that food was originally, but when I took off the lid, it certainly was nasty-looking.
There have been times I've looked in our refrigerator and found something perfectly recognizable — even beckoning. For example, one night last week we had green beans with feta cheese. They were so delicious. I bet those leftovers would make a great lunch tomorrow. "OK?" or "uh-oh?"
The safety of foods in general — and leftover food in particular — needs to be carefully considered as we age. We are more vulnerable to foodborne illnesses with each passing decade, especially if we have a chronic health condition. Perishable foods need to be kept refrigerated in order to remain safe for us to eat. When these foods do not remain adequately chilled, they become a host environment for illness-causing bacteria.
May I ask — right now, are you pondering your own food storage habits? Find them a little wanting? Could those habits explain the stomach upsets or diarrhea you've been having lately?"
Here's the message. Perishable foods need to be refrigerated right after they are purchased. Leftover foods need to be refrigerated immediately after a meal. If food (especially moist, high-protein foods like the feta cheese on those beans) ends up sitting on the counter for hours after dinner — it's a definite "uh-oh."
And this is worth repeating — as we age it's not just a stomach upset or digestive discomfort that can occur — foodborne illness can be extremely debilitating, even fatal, in an older adult.
Those green beans might look "okay" but they really needed eating within one or two days of refrigeration. As long as I know those beans went into the refrigerator right after our dinner ended; and as long as I know our refrigerator temperature remains between 34 and 40 degrees (colder is better); and as long as I don't mind a likely change in quality (less tasty), it would probably be alright for me to eat those leftovers beans. But if any of those things did not occur, and I was age 80 and diabetic or age 90 with a compromised immune system, eating them would be highly inadvisable.
If this gets your attention, you may want more detail. Maybe you have questions like "How long can I safely save a specific leftover food?" "How do you safely store eggs or deli meats — or yesterday's beef stew?" Oregon State University Extension has publications that address food storage and foodborne illness. There is even one that focuses on foodborne illness in older adults. Access them at http://extension.oregonstate.edu/fch/food-safety/ or call your local Jackson County Extension office at 541-776-7371.
And finally, a food-saving, perhaps life-saving, request. If you leave a perishable food outside of the refrigerator for more than two hours — do not consider it edible. Really. You should not eat it. Make that one hour if the temperature that day is over 90 degrees.
And will you please check the temperature of your refrigerator sometime today. Okay?
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at email@example.com or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.