UNDER normal circumstances, in this country, purchased food and food products are quite safe and acceptable.

The supermarkets are full of prepared food, nicely packed for consumption and/or further storage at home.

Clear instructions for cooking, heating, suitability for freezing etc are usually clearly stated on the pack. In most cases, there are no problems with this and thousands of such food-packs are being purchased and consumed all the time.

So why this article? The national Food Standards Agency (FSA) along with the Health Protection Agency (HPA), the principal regulators for food safety have recently issued warnings about these packaged prepared food as well as many raw food stuffs in relation to their correct handling at home.

Food Safety Week in June was geared towards the food-handling habits of some of our senior citizens. Food-borne disorders are fairly well recognised. Infection by listeria monocytogenes harboured in pate and unpasteurised soft cheese has been known to cause abortion in pregnant women. Guidelines are available and a variety of health education measures tend to keep such disorders under control. Sadly the incidence of food-borne infections are now being observed more and more in older people.

Many older individuals live alone and often consume prepared meals purchased from shops. The relative price of a larger pack is always cheaper and is therefore often purchased by the seniors.

At home it is usually stored in a domestic fridge rather than in a deep freezer; often partly consumed and re-stored and rewarmed for intermittent consumption. This is the ideal opportunity for bugs to grow and multiply.

Apart from the already mentioned listeria, campylobacter is another one residing in salads, cold meat, cooked meat etc can cause stomach problems with severe diarrhoea etc. With advancing age, the body’s immunity to such infections begin to diminish; in addition many older people are on medications which may also compromise the body’s defence system, eg gastric acidity.

Clinically characterised by nausea, sickness, abdominal cramps and watery diarrhoea, campylobacter infection can make people very ill. Older people are likely to suffer more and get severely dehydrated. If not diagnosed and treated quickly, fatality is not uncommon.

There is therefore a need for more education and awareness. Cooking, cleaning, chilling/storage and cross-contamination are the four C s being publicised for special attention.

Another bug fairly well publicised, Clostridium difficile affecting frail older sick patients in hospitals, is different from the ones mentioned. C Diff is usually the result of prolonged and excessive antibiotic therapies, not related to food.

It is important that the public remain aware of such possibilities and keep an eye on the stored food packs in the fridge of an older person living alone. It is necessary to point out that the 'use by’ date is strictly adhered to and food not consumed by that date is destroyed. At the same time the manufacturers ought to provide smaller packs at the similar price rate as the larger ones.

Arup Banerjee