You’re in the kitchen, about to make lunch. How about a nice Listeria sandwich? Or perhaps a Norovirus salad? Although we’d rather not think about it, food kept in the refrigerator at temperatures over 40 F or for more than several days can be dancing with bacteria you can’t see or smell, especially the rare but deadly Listeria, which thrives in temperatures between 18 to 68 F.
“By the time food smells, it’s already been in the fridge longer than is safe,” says Shelley Frist, Executive Director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education in Washington, D.C. “Our best advice: Don’t use smell or sight as a guide in preventing food poisoning.”
So, what can you do to ensure that the yummy lunch you just had won’t make you sick later? Here are tips that can help keep you safe.
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Buy a refrigerator thermometer. Many refrigerators now have digital displays of temperature. But for those of us without them, it’s worth buying an inexpensive refrigerator thermometer to ensure that the refrigerator is at 40 F or below, says Feist. You can find refrigerator thermometers for $2 to $6 at big box stores or online.
Toss most food after three to four days. ”A general guideline is to save leftovers only 3 to 4 days, or to reheat or freeze them,” says Feist. Reheat to at least 145 F to kill any bacteria. Freezing won’t kill bacteria, but it will stop their growth. Because many condiments are packed with preservatives, says Feist, most can be kept longer: check package recommendations.
Store meats on the bottom shelf. “That’s so the juices won’t drip onto other foods,” says Feist. Don’t store raw meat in the fridge for more than a day or two.
Put fresh fruits and vegetables away unwashed. “Wash fruits and vegetables right before you eat them,” says Feist. “Moisture accelerates spoilage, especially in foods like berries.” Some foods like spinach and other greens are prewashed. “We urge people not to rewash those because you may introduce contamination by handling them with dirty hands or putting them in contact with raw meats,” says Feist. “If the manufacturer advertises on the packaging that it’s prewashed, it’s been rigorously washed.”
Toss after the use-by date. The “sell-by” date is the date by which a product should be moved out of a store, but it’s still safe to use for several days or a week, if refrigerated. The “use by” date is set by the manufacturer as an indicator of when quality may begin to decline. “Whether you toss it or not depends on the product,” says Feist. “To be safe, I would toss it soon after the use-by date. And once the package is open, treat it like any other food: eat it within three to four days.”
Clean the fridge regularly. How often depends on how much is in the fridge and how many people use it, says Feist. The USDA suggests wiping up any spills immediately so that Listeria won’t grow and spread to other foods. Feist recommends wiping down the fridge with a mixture of one-tablespoon bleach to one gallon of warm water; the bleach will kill bacteria. Or you can use a mild detergent and warm water. Then dry the shelves and sides with a clean cloth. Wipe down the refrigerator handle often as well.
Date your food. Slap on a label with the date you opened the package. It sounds like a hassle, but it will make tossing food less of a guessing game. For a list of how long to keep various foods, go to FoodSafety.gov, and click on “Storage Times.”