Food Safety for High Risk Populations


In July of 2012, a Denver area homeless shelter served a turkey dinner to its large population of residents. Shortly after, 60 of the residents became so ill that they had to be transported to a nearby hospital. This incident was the “largest food poisoning outbreak at a U.S. shelter in the past decade.”

Despite the strict guidelines that the homeless shelter in Denver follows, this incident still occurred. So what could they have done differently? And what steps can you take to ensure food safety for your high-risk population?

Educate Staff and Patients

In healthcare or residential care facilities there is often a large population of individuals who are considered high risk. The term high risk refers to those who have compromised immune systems or are otherwise susceptible to infection or severe allergic reaction. This includes pregnant women, elderly adults, babies and small children, those affected by auto-immune deficiencies, patients receiving or donating in transplant operations and individuals with life-threatening food allergies.

In an effort to assist a portion of this population, a series of educational materials were created through a cross-university food safety education project. These charts, booklets and flyers cover topics spanning Food Safety in Pregnancy, Food Safety for Persons Living with HIV/AIDS, Foodborne Disease and Cancer Patients and more. This project was done in partnership with The Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) – an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Monitor Your Delivered Meals

If you accept donated food or food that was prepared off-site, create a strict list of guidelines that must be followed prior to your facility’s acceptance of the food.

  • Monitor the temperature of prepared foods at all times. Monitoring should begin at the time of preparation, throughout transport, upon delivery and before serving.
  • Educate your staff on food safety temperatures and the danger zones.
  • Post food safety information in delivery/receiving areas and food preparation areas.
  • Use a thermometer to test the temperature of perishable food upon delivery. Do not accept food that is potentially hazardous.
  • Keep a back-up pantry of non-perishable foods on hand in the event that a delivery was rejected.

Keep Food Service Equipment Clean

When food service equipment isn’t cleaned properly, harmful bacteria can be left behind. These bacteria will breed and spread and can contaminate the food upon contact. It is important to properly clean and maintain all of your food service equipment.

Keep your food service equipment free of contamination with these tips:

  • Clean and sanitize food service equipment multiple times every day.
  • Inspect equipment for broken seals, gaskets or any other components that leave gaps and cracks for food particles and bacteria to rest in.
  • Remove any equipment from service that does not pass inspection.
  • Repair equipment through the manufacturer’s authorized repair source.
  • Service your equipment in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommended schedule.

Store Food Properly

Food must be stored correctly to avoid instances of cross-contamination. In addition to using labels and following the first in, first out (FIFO) rule, healthcare and residential care facilities should adhere to the following food safety tips to prevent cross-contamination:

  • Separate ready-to-eat food from raw food in storage areas.
  • Seal raw food in airtight containers.
  • Keep raw food on bottom shelves or below ready-to-eat food to avoid dripping contaminates.

Keep Prepared Foods Separated
When preparing food for patients or residents to eat, it may be tempting to hurry the job along. But this can be dangerous. Particles of food can impart allergens to dishes prepared for those with severe food allergies. Cutting boards used for chopping meat or poultry can have lingering bacteria left behind and should not be re-used without being thoroughly washed.  The key is to minimize the threat of germs spreading from one food item to another.

Safe food preparation tactics should include:

  • Cleaning and sanitizing all surfaces for food preparation before and between separate food items.
  • Learning about cutting board safety and using color coded cutting boards for each food type.
  • Keeping all of the utensils used for food preparation separate, cleaned and sanitized.

Prevent foodborne illness and keep your high-risk populations safe from harm. Stay up-to-date on the latest food safety news and train your staff to follow all of the necessary guidelines every day for every meal.


About Author

Maggie Henderson

Maggie once gained five pounds in pursuit of the perfect Indian dal recipe. When she isn't cooking, she spends her days as a marketer and her nights and weekends blogging, taking pictures and chasing after her son and dog.

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