Is It Ever Safe to Heat Food In Plastic?
We’ve told you before about the glories of the USDA food safety site and hotline, which ably tackle even your most far-out questions, and which should always be your go-to if you’re worried about something food safety-related.
But certain questions seem to crop up over and over again—chief among them, “Help, I cooked plastic!” I got this question over Passover, when a friend texted to ask whether her Mom should toss the gefilte fish she’d just accidentally boiled for an hour in its plastic wrap. Although the wrap looked intact to the mother-daughter duo, the USDA page intimated that chemicals might have seeped into the food, so I suggested they toss the fish out.
Plastic is a whole new ballgame these days; you have “oven bags” that can go right around your turkey and into the stove, food-grade sous vide bags, and re-sealable plastic bags meant for storage, among others. Many substances commonly found in plastic are ones you wouldn’t want to ingest, especially on a regular basis, so we reached out to a USDA hotline staffer to find out a little more.
Marianne H. Gravely, MS, is a senior technical information specialist on the Food Safety Education Staff for the Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education at the USDA. It’s a lengthy title, and one that qualifies her to field calls from concerned consumers, most often to the poultry and meat hotline. (About my gefilte conundrum, she agreed, “I wouldn’t have served that.” Phew!)
Gravely’s most common question is in regards to folks who have pulled ground beef, a roast, ham or chicken off its Styrofoam tray and thrown it into the oven right along with the plastic disc or “soaker pad” it’s sitting on. They don’t notice the latter there until they pull the cooked meat out of the oven. If this happens to you, “always look at the package,” says Gravely. Often, she says, manufacturers realize this will happen, so not only do “they make those out of food-safe plastic so it’s safe to be in contact with food,” but their website will tell you if it can withstand high heat. “If the plastic looks normal and not melted or shriveled,” she says, you’re probably in good shape, but sight shouldn’t be the deciding factor, so definitely double-check. And if the pad or disc has broken apart or “looks melty,” she says, “you wouldn’t want to [eat] whatever you cooked with that.”
Thinking of trying sous vide technology, boiling foods in plastic bags? Not all are created equal, and some aren’t safe to boil. Again, go to the product’s website; look for the FAQ. “You shouldn’t assume that all materials are safe for all things,” says Gravely. “If it’s a storage bag, that’s not a cooking bag. Storage bags are meant for storage. Likewise, plastic wrap will often say, ‘Don’t let it come into contact with food you’re microwaving.’”
All that said, if you’ve cooked plastic and you shouldn’t have, don’t panic if you ate the food that came into contact with it. As Gravely says, “What we usually tell people is, ‘If you went ahead and ate this gefilte fish it’s not going to make you sick today or tomorrow, but the concern is if you did this over and over again, we don’t know what the harm is.’" She added, “We wouldn’t recommend it.”
The hotline number is 1-888-MPHotline, which you should call in conjunction with checking a product’s website. And don’t worry, we’ve all—food professionals included—been there.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.