Storing Food in the Refrigerator, Freezer, or Pantry

Storing Food Safely
Once you bring food home from the market, it is you who are now responsible for keeping it safe for you and your family. Storing food safely is the first step.

Spoilage vs. Safety…
Improperly stored food can spoil; it can be contaminated with illness-causing microorganisms; and/or microorganisms can multiply on the food, increasing risk for foodborne illness. The microorganisms that cause food spoilage are not the same as those that cause foodborne illness. Spoilage bacteria cause milk to sour, meat to have an off odor, or vegetables to be slimy. While sour milk is not dangerous to drink, it is very unappetizing. Other spoilage organisms include yeasts and some molds. These signs of spoilage can show you that the food is past its prime and a possible target for bacteria or other microorganisms that can make you sick.

We are all familiar with MOLDS, common food spoilage organisms.  They also have the potential to make people sick. While you can see the fuzzy tops of the mold, there is more to the story below the surface of the food. Molds are made up of long hair-like threads that can grow into a food. These threads may produce toxins that can cause gastrointestinal illness or contribute to the development of some cancers.

Foods that are likely to be contaminated with pathogenic (or sick-making) microorganisms are often called perishable or potentially hazardous. Generally, these foods are also high in protein or starch; they are moist or liquid, and low in acid. Examples include meat, poultry, fish and shellfish, eggs and dairy products, cooked potatoes, rice or macaroni, or foods made with these ingredients. These foods should not be kept in the "Danger Zone" (41°F to 140°F) for more than two hours or one hour in temperatures above 90°F.  If you cannot use the food within the recommended refrigerated time period (use-by date), freeze it.

In the freezer…
For best food quality, keep your freezer at 0°F or below. Invest in a freezer thermometer so that you can keep track of the temperature, especially if there is a power outage or your freezer is not working well.

  • Wrap all foods in packaging made for the freezer. These products are moisture-vapor proof, which prevents loss of moisture and freezer "burn." While freezer burn is not a food safety concern, it does affect the quality of the food. Freezer plastic bags, hard plastic containers, freezer paper, and heavy-duty aluminum foil are all good choices. Glass is effective, too, but poses a danger if overfilling leads to breakage.
  • Label all foods stored in the freezer with the contents and date frozen.

If food is safe when placed in the freezer, it will be safe when it is removed. However, while most pathogenic microorganisms generally do not grow or multiply in the freezer, they are not destroyed, either. (The exception is parasites which are destroyed when stored in the freezer for a period of time.) They remain dormant, but will begin multiplying when returned to a favorable temperature. That is why it is important to defrost meat, poultry and other hazardous foods in the refrigerator.

Most meat, poultry, vegetables, fruits and fruit juices can remain in the freezer at 0°F for up to a year. Fish, ground meat, bacon, ham, luncheon meats, butter, ice cream, and baked goods are best used within 1-3 months. If kept longer than these recommendations, frozen foods will likely still be safe to eat, but the quality and nutritional value will suffer and the food can be unappetizing.

In the refrigerator…
The refrigerator temperature should be kept between 38 and 40°F. The only way to know what the temperature is in your refrigerator is to place a refrigerator thermometer in the warmest part of your refrigerator. Some newer refrigerators come with thermometers installed.

  • Keep all foods wrapped tightly in foil, plastic wraps or bags or covered plastic or glass containers so that they do not dry out and are protected from bacteria found in raw foods.
  • Keep raw meat, poultry, fish, and eggs away from ready to eat foods like cheese or raw produce. It is best to keep eggs in the original container.
  • Milk, yogurt and cottage cheese can be kept up to a week after the sell-by date. Eggs, a month. Ground meat and poultry, two days. Chicken and fish, two days. Roasts and chops, five days. Luncheon meats, hot dogs, five days. Most leftovers, two to three days.
  • Label leftovers with the date and use within 2-3 days for best quality and safety.

In the pantry or cupboard…
Pantry foods should be stored in cool, dry, dark places, not near stoves, or heating or water pipes. Dry foods keep fresh the longest in airtight containers, which also help keep out insects.

  • After shopping, mark your purchases with the date.
  • Check your food storage areas every six months or so to be sure you use the oldest items first.
  • If you see any signs of insects, get rid of the infested packages, and vacuum the area thoroughly before returning unaffected foods to airtight containers. With long storage, flavor, quality and nutrients may be lost.

If you find the following when inspecting your pantry food items, it is time to toss them:

  • Torn or broken packaging
  • Outdated foods
  • Signs of insects, including droppings, webs or insect parts
  • Rusted cans
  • Dents on canned foods at seams or seals
  • Sign of leakage
  • Severe dents that may suggest that the can has a hole in it
  • Signs of rodent droppings or gnawing
  • Mold on packages of food
  • Liquid spurting out when a can or bottle is opened
  • A milky liquid when it should be clear
  • Discoloration of food
  • Off-odor
  • Sliminess



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