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Is Your Refrigerator Haunted?

October 28, 2011

Some Simple Steps Can Help to Avoid a Scary Situation

Do you know what’s lurking in your refrigerator? Is something spooky growing inside? The reality is food-borne illnesses affect 48 million Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The refrigerator is a normal part of our lives, so people don’t always think about the bacteria that can be lurking inside,” said Kim Alvari, a registered dietitian and interim director of Food and Nutrition Services at Washington Hospital. “Halloween is a great time to clean out your refrigerator and think about safe food-storing practices. With the holiday season just around the corner – a time when most people will likely have more food around the house – you can start with a clean refrigerator.”

She said often the foods that look the scariest are not the most harmful ones. For example, hard cheese can get very ugly and moldy, but is usually still safe to eat if you cut off the affected area, Alvari explained. But hot dogs and other processed meats can look and smell fine, but can contain bacteria called listeria.

“There are two types of bacteria in the refrigerator,” she said. “Pathogenic bacteria like listeria and salmonella are the kind that make you sick. Then there is the type of bacteria that occurs with food spoilage.”

Listeria can grow even in the cold temperature of the refrigerator and is a common cause of food-borne illnesses, according to Alvari. Symptoms include weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, and a stiff neck. Listeria can be present in raw milk and foods made with raw milk. It can also live in food processing plants, which is why it can be found in processed meats, she explained.

Salmonella is another common cause of food-borne illnesses. It can be found in contaminated eggs, poultry, meat, unpasteurized milk or juice, cheese, raw fruits and vegetables (alfalfa sprouts, melons), spices, and nuts, according to Alvari. Symptoms of salmonella poisoning include fever, stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Alvari said both listeria and salmonella are killed by cooking. But it’s important to store food properly to avoid contaminating other foods in the refrigerator that are eaten raw like fruits and vegetables.

Safe Storage Tips

The first step toward avoiding a haunted refrigerator is to keep the temperature below 41 degrees (34 to 40 degrees is recommended), she said. If the power goes out and the food sits for more than two hours at temperatures above 40, you should throw it out, Alvari added.

“Most new refrigerators have a temperature gauge built in,” she said. “If the power goes out, don’t open the refrigerator so it stays cold.”

She said food placement inside the refrigerator is also important. She recommends keeping similar foods together and rotating them so the newest items are in the back. For example, keep yogurt all together. If you buy new yogurt, place it behind the older yogurt so you eat the older yogurt first. Same goes for other products.

“It also makes it easier to find items when they are grouped together,” Alvari added. “They won’t get pushed to the back and forgotten.”

Next, keep raw meats separate from other items, particularly fruits and vegetables. Keep them in a meat drawer by themselves or in a sealed container, she said.

“Always keep raw meats below cooked food and fruits and vegetables,” Alvari added. “You don’t want the juices to drip into something you are going to eat without cooking.”

She also recommends against putting eggs in the door even though many refrigerators have indentations for them there. Alvari said the temperature in the door varies too much. Only bottled drinks, condiments, and other items with a long shelf life should be kept in the door.

“Foods that are the most perishable are foods that contain protein and moisture like meat and poultry, dairy, and eggs,” she said. “Meat and poultry should only be kept in the refrigerator for a couple of days. If you’re not going to cook it within a couple days of buying it, then store it in the freezer. A good rule of thumb for leftovers is four days. After that, throw them out.”

Alvari said it’s also important to make sure lids and packaging around food are closed tightly to avoid spills, which give bacteria a place to grow.

“One study found listeria growing in 70 percent of the refrigerators they checked with spills in them,” she said. “Make sure you keep your refrigerator wiped down and clean, but don’t use chemicals. That could contaminate the food as well. Just use warm soapy water.”

To learn more about food safety, visit www.foodsafety.gov.