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When storing food in the refrigerator, freezer, or cupboard, you have numerous opportunities to avoid foodborne illness. One of the most effective ways to prevent or slow the growth of these bacteria is to keep foods chilled at proper temperatures. These food storage tips can help you avoid foodborne illnesses..

The Basics

  • Refrigerate or freeze perishables right away. Foods that require refrigeration should be put in the refrigerator as soon as you get them home. Stick to the “two-hour rule” for leaving items needing refrigeration out at room temperature. Never allow meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, or produce or other foods that require refrigeration to sit at room temperature for more than two hours—one hour if the air temperature is above 90° F. This also applies to items such as leftovers, “doggie bags,” and take-out foods. Also, when putting food away, don’t crowd the refrigerator or freezer so tightly that air can’t circulate.
  • Maintain the proper temperatures for your appliances. Maintain a refrigerator temperature of 40° F or less. The freezer should be set to 0° F. Temperatures should be checked on a regular basis. Appliance thermometers are the most accurate and cost-effective way to determine these temperatures.
  • Check the storage instructions on the label. Other than meats, vegetables, and dairy products, many items must be kept cold. If you haven’t properly refrigerated something, it’s usually best to throw it away.
  • As soon as possible, use ready-to-eat foods. Refrigerated ready-to-eat foods, like luncheon meats, should be consumed as soon as possible. The longer they are stored in the refrigerator, the more likely Listeria, a bacterium that causes foodborne illness, will grow, especially if the refrigerator temperature is higher than 40° F (4° C).

Check Your Food

  • Keep an eye out for spoiled food. Anything that appears or smells suspicious should be discarded. Mold is an indication of spoilage. It can grow even in the presence of refrigeration. Mold is not a major health risk, but it can make food taste unpleasant. The safest practice is to throw out moldy food.
  • Food can make you very sick even if it does not appear, smell, or taste spoiled. This is due to the fact that foodborne illnesses are caused by pathogenic bacteria, which are distinct from the spoilage bacteria that cause foods to “go bad.” Many pathogenic organisms can be found in raw or undercooked meat, poultry, seafood, milk, and eggs, as well as in contaminated water and fruits and vegetables. Bacterial growth will be slowed if these foods are kept properly chilled.
  • Cleaning your hands, surfaces, and produce, separating raw foods from ready-to-eat foods, and cooking to safe temperatures are all recommended food handling practices that will reduce your risk of getting sick even further.

Refrigeration

  • Refrigerate food to marinate it. Bacteria can multiply quickly in foods that have been left to marinate at room temperature. Also, unless you bring the marinating liquid to a rapid boil first, never reuse it as a sauce.
  • Clean the refrigerator on a regular basis, and wipe up spills right away. This inhibits the growth of Listeria bacteria and prevents drips from thawing meat from spreading bacteria from one food to another. Clean out the fridge on a regular basis.
  • Foods should be kept covered. Refrigerated foods should be stored in covered containers or sealed storage bags, and leftovers should be checked daily for spoilage. Store eggs in their cartons inside the refrigerator rather than outside on the door, where the temperature is higher.
  • Examine the expiration dates. A “use by” date indicates that the manufacturer recommends using the product by this date in order to get the best flavor or quality. The date does not correspond to a food safety date. A product’s taste, color, texture, or nutrient content may change after the use-by date, but it may still be wholesome and safe long after that date. If you’re not sure or if the food appears to be tainted, throw it out.
  • The only exception is infant formula. Infant formula and some baby foods are distinct in that they must be consumed by the use-by date printed on the package.

Freezers

  • Food that has been properly frozen and cooked is safe to eat. Food that is handled properly and stored in a freezer at 0° F will be safe. While freezing does not kill most bacteria, it does prevent their growth. Though food will remain safe indefinitely at 0° F, the quality will deteriorate the longer it is stored in the freezer. Tenderness, flavor, aroma, juiciness, and color can all suffer as a result. Leftovers should be kept in tightly sealed containers. To ensure the safety of commercially frozen foods, it is critical to follow the cooking instructions on the package.
  • Nutrients are not depleted by freezing. The protein content of a food changes little when it is frozen.
  • Freezer burn does not imply that the food is unsafe. Freezer burn is a food-quality problem, not a food-safety problem. On frozen food, it appears as grayish-brown leathery spots. It occurs when food is not securely wrapped in airtight packaging, resulting in dry spots in foods.
  • Thermometers in refrigerators and freezers should be checked. Refrigerator/freezer thermometers are available in department, appliance, culinary, and grocery stores’ housewares sections. Place one in your refrigerator and one in your freezer in an easy-to-read location in the front. Check the temperature on a regular basis, at least once a week.

Losing Electricity

If you lose power, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors as closed as possible. If your refrigerator is unopened, it will keep food cold for about four hours. When the door is kept closed, a full freezer will keep an adequate temperature for about 48 hours.

ONCE POWER IS RESTORED…

You’ll need to determine the safety of your food. Here’s how:

  • If you kept an appliance thermometer in the freezer, check the temperature when the power is restored. The food is safe and can be refrozen if the freezer thermometer reads 40°F or lower.
  • Check each package of food for safety if a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer. You can’t go by appearance or odor alone. It is safe to refreeze or cook food that still has ice crystals or is 40°F or lower.
  • Refrigerated food should be safe as long as the power is out for no more than four hours and the refrigerator door is kept closed. Any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or leftovers) that has been exposed to temperatures above 40°F for two hours or more should be discarded.

Tips for Non-Refrigerated Items

  • Examine canned goods for any signs of damage. Swelling, leakage, punctures, holes, fractures, extensive deep rusting, or crushing or denting severe enough to prevent normal stacking or opening with a manual, wheel-type can opener are all signs of can damage. Stickiness on the outside of cans could be an indication of a leak. Cans that appear to be leaking after purchase should be returned to the store for a refund or exchange. Otherwise, dispose of the cans.
  • Keep poisonous substances away from food. Keep non-perishable foods away from household cleaning products and chemicals.

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