They’re a tasty convenience food for millions of seniors who live alone or in assisted living facilities around the country: salami, bologna, pepperoni, and a variety of processed meats that are sliced with machines similar to those used to slice bread, then stamped out into all shapes and sizes of cold cuts.
But health experts say deli meats are an unhealthy choice for seniors, as they can carry food-borne pathogens that cause illness and even death in older people.
Food-borne illnesses are common in the United States. According to the CDC, 22 million Americans (one in six) get sick from food poisoning every year and 128,000 are hospitalized. But most people recover quickly without incident — experts call food poisoning “the gift that keeps on giving,” because once you’ve recovered you have lifelong immunity against serious problems from the same source of contamination. But this can only happen if your immune system is robust enough to take the challenge.
However, some germs can be especially harmful to seniors, who also tend to suffer more complications after bouts with salmonella or listeria than younger do.
Viruses and Diseases Linked with Deli Meat Consumption
“People who eat a lot of deli meats have more stomach cancer than other people,” said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Conn. “Something happens when you age to cause your stomach to be less acidic.”
For example, the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes is found in soil and water, and may contaminate foods such as hotdogs or chicken salad that are made with raw poultry. If a senior’s immune system has weakened from diabetes or heart disease or for some other reason, listeriosis can develop into meningitis and brain infection, said Dr. Stephen Ostroff, director of the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Infants are particularly at risk from listeriosis, which can cause meningitis or failure to thrive. (In adults it usually triggers high fever with chills.) Since 1998 the number of cases in older people has jumped by 30 percent, he added.
Brucella is a bacterium that can contaminate unpasteurized milk or cheese products such as Feta or Brie. It could also come from contaminated water used to make hotdogs, Katz said. The U.S. Agriculture Department recommends heat-treating dairy products to kill brucella before consumption; Katz says he exposes cheeses to an open flame before eating them.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), brucella is one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans, usually causing a mild flu-like illness. But it can lead to severe problems such as arthritis throughout your body or even heart failure if not treated, Ostroff said. There were 545 cases reported from 1998 through 2008, including 89 deaths.
Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is “the biggie,” he said — a virus that infects nearly all adults who live past age 50 but doesn’t hurt many people because their immune system keeps it under control until they are about 80 years old. At that point, Medicare data show quality of life for seniors begins to suffer.
About 8 to 10 percent of people who develop CMV, one of the most common infectious diseases in the United States, die from it or become so ill that they are hospitalized. Young children can be fatally infected by eating chicken salad at a picnic, Katz said. “It really is just a virulent organism,” he said.
While past regulations have banned some of these pathogens and others are on the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s radar screen for regulation, there’s no way for consumers to know which brands are safe. There is also concern about listeria contamination in deli meats made overseas from U.S.-raised hogs that were fed an illicit additive called ractopamine — used in China to promote leanness in meat production — that the FDA-approved for export but not to be used in U.S. meats, Katz said.
He advises buying deli meats at a reputable butcher shop where you can see the way they are processed, or from a store with clear labeling of contents and safe-handling procedures; freezing raw meat before using it if there is no such assurance. (Some sources recommend an hour-long stay in your freezer.) While cooking kills most pathogens, frozen meats should still be cooked thoroughly before consumption, he said.
Food Safety Tips for Seniors
The best choices for seniors: turkey slices and chicken salad made without mayonnaise, tuna packed in water or olive oil rather than vegetable oil, or mayo-based ones and roast beef packaged in cardboard boxes, not plastic.
“If you’re having a busy day and need something to eat very quickly, it’s best to go with the tuna salad or boiled chicken,” Katz said. “Don’t fall for anything that says ‘tender’ on the label.”
When shopping for poultry, look for meat with a deep red color and avoid any package that has liquid on it. If you’re buying deli meats in a supermarket, buy only refrigerated packages since meats will be less likely to have become contaminated if they are chilled from the time they enter the store. Don’t leave them out at room temperature; even then, keep them away from cooked food.
At home, if you’re going to use a deli meat that is no longer cold, freeze it for an hour before eating it to kill any lingering pathogens.