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Avoid Food Poisoning: Keep Your Refrigerator Safe

What's lurking in your fridge?
By
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Does evil lurk behind the door of your refrigerator? The last time you cleaned out your fridge, did you find a science experiment growing on last week's leftovers?

According to the experts, the home kitchen is a Petri dish for food-borne illness. In fact, what we often mistake for an upset stomach or the flu is often a mild form of food poisoning.

According to the February 2004 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, "food-borne diseases are estimated to cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year."

These bacteria, viruses, and parasites pose health risks for all of us, but especially for pregnant and lactating women, young children, the elderly, and anyone with an immune-deficiency disease.

The good news is that up to 25% of the outbreaks can be prevented with safer practices in the home.

So how do you make sure the food in your refrigerator is safe? Let's start with the basics:

  • Clean out the fridge every week or two, using a mild solution of bleach and water.
  • Post thermometers to ensure that the temperature stays below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the refrigerator and 0 degrees Fahrenheit in the freezer.
  • Wipe up any spills in your refrigerator immediately, to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Use all food by its expiration or "use-by" date.
  • Food that is labeled with a "sell-by" date should be used within five days of that date.

It's also important to examine food for any signs of deterioration before you prepare it. When food starts to deteriorate, it often looks and/or smells bad.

But unfortunately, some foods can appear perfectly good even when they are full of dangerous organisms. So when in doubt, throw it out!

Live by this motto, read the dates stamped on containers, and use all your senses -- including common sense -- to determine if food is safe to eat.

Smart Shopping

Safety starts at the grocery store. Begin shopping in the center of the market, proceed to the periphery, and select frozen food last. Don't buy dented or leaking cans or jars, or fresh food that looks or smells old. Make sure eggs are free of any cracks. Check the dates on all foods, including cans and jars.

Once you're home, immediately store perishables and frozen foods. Keep your refrigerator and freezer filled, but with a little room to spare to allow for air circulation. Overstuffed refrigerators and freezers can dip below safe temperatures, thus promoting bacterial growth.

The Danger Zone

Foods that thaw or sit out at room temperature are officially in the danger zone (40-140 degrees Fahrenheit), where bacteria multiply rapidly. Thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator -- on the bottom shelf so they won't drip onto foods. And remember that foods served buffet-style should not sit out any longer than two hours.

Carefully wrap and date your leftovers, and use them up within two days. Remove as much air as possible from storage bags to keep foods fresh longer. You might consider getting a vacuum sealer, a handy gadget that shrink-wraps food for maximum storage.

For quick cooling, divide large pots of hot food into smaller containers before you refrigerate or freeze them.

If you follow these simple precautions, you'll find it's easy to keep your refrigerator safe and keep yourself free of food-borne illnesses. Chill out safely to stay healthy!

Reviewed on May 14, 2004

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