Many people expect the fridge to perform miracles. Just packing food in any condition, any way into the fridge does not necessarily make it safe to eat. An overloaded fridge, full of uncovered, unprotected raw and cooked foods can mean harmful bacteria poised to pounce, a food poisoning attack waiting to happen.
Remember, the refrigerator is the safe guard against food poisoning but food handlers must play their part too.
Bacteria which cause food spoilage are everywhere. Some are harmless. Others can contaminate food, causing illness varying in severity from stomach pains and headaches to fever, vomiting and/or diarrhoea which can lead to more serious conditions.
Food poisoning bacteria grow rapidly in moist, warm food, at temperatures between 5 and 63° C. Most don’t grow at temperatures between 0 and 4°C. So food is safe for short periods in the refrigerator (normal temperature between 2 and 4°C). But bacteria are not killed by cold, they simply remain dormant, and when warm again they come to life, grow and multiply rapidly. With optimum conditions, one bacteria splits into two in 10 to 20 minutes. In four hours, a single bacterium in food can become 40,000, in seven hours, two million.
Bacteria flourish in nutritious, high protein foods such as poultry, meats, seafood, eggs, milk, cream and custards, sauces, gravies, cooked casseroles, stocks, soups and in cooked rice and other moist cereals including bread-based stuffings and reheated foods. We call these high risk foods.
Bacteria can be spread by hands, knives, meat slicers, cutting boards, plates, kitchen benches, by people coughing or sneezing over food, by insects or animals, and by cross-contamination between foods if they are stored touching each other. For instance, harmful bacteria can spread from raw poultry or unwashed vegetables left in contact with cooked ham or cheese. Or, if juices from raw meat or poultry are allowed to drip on to ready-to-eat foods such as salami, pasta salad or dessert.
Some bacteria cause spoilage that is obvious, for instance mould growth or offensive odour and colour change. But sometimes dangerous bacteria are growing in food which looks and smells perfectly wholesome. You cannot always rely on appearances. To keep food safe to eat it is essential to limit bacterial growth by keeping perishable, high risk foods as cold as possible and by clean, hygienic food handling practices.
Safe Food Storage
Temperature Control: Check that your refrigerator is at the correct temperature (less than 4°C). When the fridge is very full, turn thermostat to Colder setting. If in doubt about your fridge’s efficiency check it with a fridge thermometer Freezer temperature should be maintained at minus 18°C. (Ice cream is a good indicator of freezer temperature: it should be firm.) Consult your fridge manufacturer’s manual for advise on temperature control. Try not to keep opening the fridge door every few minutes. Obviously this allows cold air to escape and temperature inside to rise.
Cleanliness: Keep all kitchen work surfaces clean, and do clean your refrigerator out regularly. Wipe it out with a cloth using mild soap or dish-washing detergent and luke warm water. Don’t neglect the door seals. Use clean storage containers.
Cover all food you put in the fridge:
– Raw meats need some air circulation, so don’t tightly cover them. Put meat in a roomy container which has sides to prevent spills. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or foil to prevent surface drying but let air in.
– Supermarket packs of meat on trays enclosed in plastic film can be refrigerated as they are for a few days but to safeguard against leakage, place trays on a plate. Split plastic wrap to let in some air. Chilled, vacuum packed foods keep longer if left sealed.
– Cooked cold roast meats and poultry need wrapping to prevent drying out.
– Shelf Position. Never let raw meats come in contact with cooked meats or vegetables to be eaten raw. To avoid cross contamination by dripping juices the theory is to place raw meats low in the fridge, cooked meats above. But if food is correctly covered and protected shelf position is not so important.
– Some fridges are colder at the top (older fridges with ice boxes, and newer ones with quick-chill areas) others are of fairly even temperature throughout, while the fruit and vegetable drawers are not so cold. Raw meats keep best in the coldest position.
Cool hot food first
Do not put very hot food into the fridge in attempt to cool it quickly, especially when the fridge is packed full. This simply raises the refrigerator temperature and risks spoiling other food.
Before refrigerating, cool left-over cooked foods as quickly as possible. To hasten cooling of stews, casseroles, soups and custards, stir them often, standing the pan, lightly covered with clean greaseproof paper, or a tilted lid, in a sink or bowl of ice-cold water. Replace the water as it warms. (Chilly-bin freezer pads and bags of ice cubes are helpful.) If cooling a large quantity divide the mixture into two smaller, clean containers to speed things. Once food has cooled to warm or lukewarm, immediately cover closely and refrigerate.