Just Chill! Refrigeration and Food Safety

Thursday, November 29, 2018

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Did you know that your refrigerator is one of the most important pieces of equipment in your kitchen that ensures your food is safe? Imagine the discomfort you go through when a rubber goes bad, the compressors stop working, or even worse, an all-day power cut which leaves us worrying whether or not all our food will need to be thrown out.

A refrigerator set at 40F (4C) or below will protect most foods, as it slows the growth of naturally existing bacteria that may happen to be in the foods we consume. Bacteria grows rapidly when they have the availability of nutrients, moisture and favourable temperatures – which range between 40 and 140F (4- 6C), classified as the Danger Zone — some of which double in number in as little as 20 minutes and can cause serious illnesses.

To begin with, you should know that there are two kinds of bacteria that may exist in refrigerated foods. These are: pathogenic bacteria, the type that cause food-borne illness; and spoilage bacteria, the type that causes food to deteriorate and develop unpleasant odours, tastes, and textures.

Pathogenic organisms can grow rapidly in “Danger Zone” temperatures, but they do not generally affect the taste, smell, or appearance of a food. Therefore, you cannot tell that a pathogen is present. These will, however, make you sick and may also lead to death. Some examples of these organisms include bacteria, viruses, and parasites, such as E. coli and Noro virus. This can affect you even in the smallest quantities.

Given that most of our foods today are distributed in hermetically-sealed packages — both the food and the container have been sterilised to a temperature that kills pathogens that grow in food – they are usually safe for consumption unless contamination occurred during processing or storage. Items such as fresh fruit and vegetables or meat, however, which are not usually processed before you buy them, are considered more high-risk foods which must be refrigerated at recommended temperatures and handled in a manner to prevent contamination.

Spoilage organisms such as yeasts, moulds, fungi or bacteria can grow at low temperatures, even in our refrigerators. These cause food to develop unpleasant tastes, smells and even change colour. Spoiled food will not necessarily make you sick; however, I am sure many of us will get physically ill from eating horrible-tasting, slimy leftovers that smell like sulphur. Some bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes thrive at cold temperatures, and if present, will multiply in the refrigerator over time and could cause illness.

Here are some tips that will ensure your chilled foods remain safe for consumption

Firstly, we must keep our refrigerator clean, ensure all spills are cleaned immediately and periodic cleaning is done internally and externally with warm soapy water before rinsing. Service your refrigerator if you feel it may not be performing optimally. You can keep an opened box of baking soda or leave a container with freshly grounded coffee to keep it smelling fresh.

Ensure that you monitor your refrigerator to ensure it maintains a temperature of 40F/4C or below. You can keep a home thermometer in the kitchen if you don't have a built in thermostat. After a power outage, ensure that you check to see if temperatures have fallen out of range, if the refrigerator is still within range, the food is safe. If it exceeds two hours and the temperatures were above 40 F/4 oC for more than two hours do not consume high-risk foods such as meats, leftovers and cut fruits.

Be sure refrigerator/freezer doors are closed tightly at all times. Growing up, we were told not to open the refrigerator unnecessarily. Now we know why. Close doors as soon as possible. Try not to store perishable foods in the door; the temperature of the storage bins in the door fluctuate more than the temperature in the cabinet.

Hot food can be placed directly in the refrigerator or you can choose to cool it in ice or cold water before refrigerating. Never leave your foods on the counter for more than an hour to cool. Also, ensure you cover foods to retain moisture and prevent them from picking up odours from other foods.

Avoid placing large pots and containers in the refrigerator; divide food into small portions and use shallow containers to store. Additionally, large cuts of meats or whole poultry must be divided into smaller pieces before storing. Raw meat, poultry, and seafood should be in sealed containers or wrapped securely to prevent raw juices from contaminating other foods. Never pack your refrigerator too tightly with food, you must allow air to circulate internally.

Believe it or not, the adjustable shelves, doors, cooling trays, etc, were made for a reason. These make storage of foods more convenient and provide an optimal storage environment and temperatures for fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, and cheese. If you have crisp drawers that allow you to adjust humidity, ensure that fruits are stored at a lower humidity that veggies. Ensure that meats, both in the freezer and normal compartment, are stored on the bottom shelves in a drip-free container to prevent juices from contaminating other foods,

If you still defrost your freezer, ensure foods removed are kept cold and frozen foods are prevented from thawing. You can always use an igloo/cooler with ice to store foods in the interim. Another thing I was guilty of when I was tasked with cleaning the fridge, was using a knife or ice pick to remove frost. Avoid this as it could damage the inner lining of the freezer.

Try to get in the habit of labelling your leftovers with the date they were made, to ensure that you follow the first-in-first out rule. Check at least once a week to see if perishable foods are spoiling and remove those that are spoilt along with leftovers that have been sitting in the refrigerator for extended periods: See recommended cold storage chart for storage of meat, poultry, and egg products.

Safe Recommended Storage Times For Refrigerated Foods

NOTE: These short but safe time limits will help keep home-refrigerated food from spoiling.

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