FSA in Scotland
Last updated on 15 June 2009
Older people taking more risks with food safety
People over the age of 60 are more likely to take risks with ‘use by’ dates than younger people, according to new research findings published today by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
Eating food beyond its 'use by' date increases the risk of food poisoning from listeria. A recent sharp rise in the number of people taken ill with listeria has seen more older people affected by the potentially deadly food bug.
The number of cases of listeria food poisoning rose by 20% in 2007 and has doubled since 2000. This increase has occurred predominantly among people over 60. The research published today shows less than half of this age group recognise 'use by' dates as an important indicator of whether food is safe or not, and so could be putting themselves at risk of serious illness.
The research findings include the following:
- Less than half (42%) of older people questioned in the survey correctly identified the ‘use by’ date as an important indicator of whether a food is safe – much lower than people in younger age groups1
- Of particular concern was that older respondents were more likely to eat food past its 'use by' date. For example 40% would eat dairy products up to three days past their 'use by' date – listeria has been reported from dairy products as well as from a wide range of other chilled ready to eat foods2
- Less than half (39%) of people aged over 65 checked their fridge temperature at least every six months – setting the right fridge temperature between 0oC and 5oC (32oF and 41oF) is important for controlling listeria growth in food
Other research commissioned by the FSA into the attitudes of the over 60s towards food safety showed that people were reluctant to throw away food and were often confused by fridge temperatures.
As Food Safety Week starts (15 June 2009), the FSA is tackling the rise in listeria food poisoning among older people by launching a new campaign to warn about the dangers of listeria and the simple steps that can be taken to avoid it.
The Agency will work with GP surgeries, pharmacies and a range of community groups across the UK, specifically in areas with large populations of older people. The campaign will be spearheaded by a poster and leaflet campaign. Food safety information will also be targeted directly at older people, with messages and advice printed on millions of paper bags used for dispensing prescriptions.
Sandy McDougall, at FSA Scotland, said:
'The rise in listeria food poisoning among older people is worrying. Listeria can make people very ill and 95% of cases end up with treatment in hospital.
'There are some really simple steps people can take to prevent getting ill in the first place:
- be aware that 'use by' dates indicate how long food will remain safe, and then make sure you stick to them
- always follow the storage instructions on the label
- make sure your fridge is cold enough – between 0oC and 5oC (32o and 41oF) is ideal.
'These are the three messages that our new campaign is focusing on and Food Safety Week is a good time to be raising awareness of them. Cases of food poisoning double in frequency during the summer months but it is very easy to avoid becoming one of those who fall ill by sticking to these simple steps.'
The FSA has carried out surveys to determine the prevalence of listeria in foods that have been linked to the bug, such as smoked fish and sliced meats. It is also commissioning research to understand what makes the over 60s more likely to become ill from listeria.
1 51% of 25-44 year olds and 53% of 45-64 year olds correctly identified the 'use by' date.
2 Only a third of people (34%) aged 65+ would never eat dairy past its 'use by' date, compared to more than half of people aged 16-24 (56%) and 25-44 (54%) and two fifths (40%) of those aged 45-64.
Notes to editors
- Food Safety Week is an annual event that promotes the importance of good food hygiene in the home through a range of local events taking place across the UK in schools, community groups and local councils.
- The new campaign builds on the on-going work by the FSA to tackle all types of food poisoning. Last year, it launched the GermWatch campaign, based on the 4Cs basics of good food hygiene (Cleaning, Cooking, Chilling and avoiding Cross-contamination).
- Listeria (Listeria monocytogenes) can cause illness in certain groups of vulnerable people, such as pregnant women and people with weakened immunity, particularly those over 60. People with weakened immunity could include those who've had transplants, are taking drugs that weaken the immune system or have cancers affecting their immune system, such as leukaemia or lymphoma. Among these vulnerable groups, the illness is often severe and can be life-threatening.
Listeria has been found in a wide range of chilled ready-to-eat foods, including sandwiches, butter, cooked sliced meats, smoked salmon, certain soft cheeses and pâté. Vulnerable people should avoid eating soft cheeses (such as Camembert, Brie, or others that have a similar rind, and soft blue cheeses) and all types of pâtés, including vegetable.
Special care should also be taken to follow the storage instructions on the food label. Chilled foods should be kept out of the fridge for the shortest time possible and you shouldn't use food after its 'use by' date.
- 'Use by' and 'best before' dates:
You shouldn't use any food or drink after the end of the 'use by' date on the label, even if it looks and smells fine. This is because it could put your health at risk. These foods can be kept longer if cooked or frozen before the end of the 'use by' date.
'Best before' dates are more about quality than safety, so when the date runs out it doesn't mean that the food will be harmful, but it might begin to lose its flavour and texture. However, you shouldn't eat eggs after the 'best before' date.
- Qualitative research was also commissioned by the FSA to explore responses to key messages about listeria among the over 60s and to explore some potential creative routes for the materials being used for Food Safety Week. This research has been used to inform the design of materials for food safety week and their dissemination.