Can Your Refrigerator Kill You?
Find out how to keep nasty microbes from setting up shop in your fridge.
Keep Your Fridge Safe
Attack of the killer refrigerator bugs may sound like a bad "B" movie, but scarily enough the bacteria that cause food poisoning can thrive in any fridge. More worrisome is a laundry list of nasty (and invisible) microbes, the kind that like to set up shop in the average not-so-spotless, and definitely not-cold-enough, refrigerator.Here's the low down on everything you need to know, and do, to keep your fridge from making you sick.
Set refrigerator temperatures somewhere between 34-40º F since cold slows bacteria growth. Any warmer than 40 degrees and bacteria numbers ratchet up fast, doubling in as little as 20 minutes. Check the temp periodically with an inexpensive refrigerator or outdoor thermometer because built-in thermostats can be off.
Tip: Stash hot leftovers in small, shallow containers and cool off in cold water or an ice bath for a short period before refrigerating because putting hot leftovers in the fridge can raise the temperature.
Organization 101: Where Does It Go?
Temperatures vary, so stash foods in just the right place to keep them safe.
On the door: It's about seven degrees warmer here, so this isn't the place for perishables like eggs, milk, or yogurt, no matter how perfect the fit. OK on the door: condiments, sodas, butter.
Inside shelves: Eggs (in the original carton), luncheon meats, leftovers, dairy products or any food that says "refrigerate when opened" are best here.
Organization 102: Where Does It Go?
Drawers, Bins & Containers:
Consult the owner's manual for guidance. For produce drawers, adjust to high humidity for vegetables. For fruits, turn dial to low humidity.
Bottom shelf: The coldest part of the fridge, this is the best place to store fresh meats, fish, and poultry.
Foil, zip-top plastic bags, or glass containers all work fine when it comes to storing food. But it's fine to keep fresh meats, fish, and poultry in the original packaging and store in a shallow dish that will catch any drips. That avoids cross contamination.
And, unsightly as open cans look, the hazards are minimal say scientists. Keep cans covered (with plastic wrap or plastic lids) to prevent contamination from airborne bacteria. And make sure to use up canned leftovers in 24 hours.
Wipe up spills immediately with hot, soapy water. Rinse well.
Weekly: Throw out expired perishables (produce, meats, leftovers). Use up leftovers within four days, meats within two.
At least twice a year: Unplug and do a thorough cleaning, storing foods in an ice chest or cooler. Wipe down shelves, produce drawers, and every nook and tight space with a mixture of equal parts vinegar and water. (Acids in vinegar fight mildew.) Avoid harsh and abrasive cleansers which destroy interiors and lend "off" chemical flavors to food by trying a mix of baking soda plus water for crusty stains.
Since air circulates between the cooler and freezer, stinky aromas from expired leftovers or spoiled produce can make everything from ice cubes to cheese taste funky. Wipe up spills and toss expired perishables immediately to keep a lid on odors. A fresh box of baking soda left open on a shelf can help lingering aromas.
Really bad odors? Do a thorough cleaning. Still not smelling fresh? Remove foods to another refrigerator and fill the offending refrigerator with rolled up newspapers. Turn off power; shut door and let stand for a few days. Throw out newspaper and do a thorough cleaning.
A Place for Everything?
Designed for food storage, some refrigerators also become a repository for batteries, fish bait, tooth whitening bleach, and all manner of other non-food items. How safe it that? Well, it's preferable to keep only food in the icebox. But if you must store items like batteries (cold prolongs their life), candles (they burn more slowly), or film (deteriorates less quickly), experts say to keep them in airtight containers so they don't come into contact with foods. Fish bait? Yeah, it needs to be kept cold. But for Pete's sake, stash it in a picnic cooler.
While bacteria lurk everywhere in the environment without causing illness, there's no reason make your fridge a bug-friendly incubator. It takes only three or four hours at temperatures above 40 degrees for bacteria to multiply to levels that can promote illness. Low-acid foods such as meat, eggs, and cooked veggies are the most susceptible. But no matter what food is in your icebox, the best way to keep them safe and avoid a nasty case of food poisoning is simple. Keep it cold and keep it clean.