Beyond the 'sniff' test : 6 tips to help improve your food safety knowledge and practices

The Bottom Line

  • Food safety relates to the handling, preparation, and storage of food in ways that prevent foodborne illness.
  • Canadians are becoming less aware of how to safely handle and prepare food to avoid foodborne illness and food poisoning.
  • Food safety can begin at home: refrigerate leftovers rapidly; wash your hands before and after handling raw meat; ensure your refrigerator and freezer operate within the safe range of temperatures; and be aware of high-risk food.

When it comes to food safety, many of us use the 'sniff' test to check whether our food smells bad and has spoiled, or the 'five second' rule when food is dropped on the floor.(1) But food safety is more than that. It relates to the handling, preparation, and storage of food in ways that prevent foodborne illness.(2)

Food can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses or parasites. The main pathogenic bacteria in food are Campylobacter and salmonella, as well as Listeria and Escherichia coli (known as 'E. Coli'). Every year, one in eight Canadians fall ill after consuming contaminated or undercooked food, which results in staggering costs for individuals, the health system and society as a whole.(3, 4)

Most people are fully recover from foodborne illness or intoxication. However, older adults are at higher risk of getting listeriosis and have higher rates of hospitalization and death if they are infected with salmonella or Campylobacter.

But what do we know about the food safety knowledge and practices of community-dwelling older adults?

What research tells us

A recent study revealed that Canadians are becoming less aware of how to safely handle and prepare food to avoid foodborne illness and food poisoning.(4) Do you defrost meat over the counter, like 24% of older Canadians? Do you wash poultry before cooking, like 68% of older Canadians?(4) These behaviours increase the risk of intoxication, as does eating eggs that have runny yolks.

A recent and high-quality systematic review could also shed light on this issue. The review examined 36 studies of food safety knowledge and practices of consumers aged 60 years and older who live at home and prepare food for themselves or others.(5) Food safety can begin at home with some of these tips.

Refrigerate your leftovers
Did you know that perishable food should not be left out for more than two hours at room temperature? The good thing is that the majority of older adults (87%) are aware of the importance of refrigerating or freezing food rapidly.

Wash your hands before or after handling raw meat
To reduce the growth of bacteria and cross-contamination, wash your hands, utensils and cooking surfaces. Most older adults who participated in the studies say that they wash their hands before cooking. That being said, we see a discrepancy between studies where older adult self-report their behaviours in contrast to studies where older adults are observed. In the latter case, observations seem to indicate that older adults may not wash their hands as often...

Check your refrigerator temperature
Make sure the fridge is set to no more than 4 degrees Celsius, and the freezer to -18 degrees Celsius. Surveys in the United Kingdom and New Zealand have shown that most refrigerators unfortunately operate above recommended temperatures. In addition, a good practice for keeping your refrigerator cold is to limit the number of times you open it and the length of time you leave it open.

Be cautious about at risk food
Many people consume undercooked food, which increases the risk for pathogens. At risk food may include eggs, soft cheeses, cured meats and seafood. However, the risk may differ from country to country due to differences in food production and processing practices. For example, hens are vaccinated against salmonella in some countries.

Check expiration dates
You must check the "best before" date indicated on the packaging and make sure to cook or freeze meat, fish and seafood before this date. Older adults who participated in the studies typically checked the expiration dates, which suggests that they are concerned about the quality and safety of the food they eat.

Be aware of pathogens
Surveys have shown that older adults are generally aware of E. Coli and salmonella, but not Listeria. Since older adults constitute a high-risk population for listeriosis, family members, friends or health and social services professionals should not hesitate to provide them with information on food safety practices. 

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Author Details


  1. Moir C. Food safety: Are the sniff test, the five-second rule and rare burgers safe? The Conversation, 9 May 2018.

  2. United States Department of Agriculture. Basic for handling food safely. Food Safety and Inspection Service, 24 March 2015.

  3. La Presse canadienne. Salubrité des aliments: les Canadiens de moins en moins informés. La Presse, 29 July 2018.

  4. Government of Canada. Food safety for adults ages 60 and over, 27 September 2019.

  5. Thaivalappil A, Young I, Paco C, Jeyapalan A, Papadopoulos A. Food safety and the older consumer: A systematic review and meta-regression of their knowledge and practices at home. Food Control. 2020;107.

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