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What is that Growing in Your Refrigerator?

What is that Growing in Your Refrigerator?


Bacteria exists everywhere in nature. It is in the soil, air, water, and the foods we eat. When bacteria has nutrients (food), moisture, and favorable temperatures, it can grow rapidly, increasing in numbers to the point where some types of bacteria can cause illness. Bacteria grows most rapidly in the range of temperatures between 40°F and 140°F, the "Danger Zone," some doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. A refrigerator set at 40°F or below will protect most foods.

 There are two different families of bacteria in refrigerated food: 

  • Pathogenic bacteria - the kind that cause food-borne illness.
  • Spoilage bacteria -  the kind of bacteria that cause foods to deteriorate and develop unpleasant odors, tastes, and textures.

Pathogenic bacteria can grow rapidly in the "Danger Zone," the temperature range between 40 and 140 °F, but they do not generally affect the taste, smell, or appearance of a food. In other words, one cannot tell that a pathogen is present.

 Spoilage bacteria can grow at low temperatures, such as in the refrigerator. Eventually they cause food to develop off or bad tastes and smells. Most people would not choose to eat spoiled food, but if they did, they probably would not get sick. It comes down to an issue of quality versus safety:

  • Food that has been left too long on the counter may be dangerous to eat, but could look fine.
  • Food that has been stored too long in the refrigerator or freezer may be of lessened quality, but most likely would not make anyone sick. (However, some bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes thrive at cold temperatures, and if present, will multiply in the refrigerator over time and could cause illness.)

Safe Refrigerator Temperature

For safety, it is important to verify the temperature of the refrigerator. Refrigerators should be set to maintain a temperature of 40 °F or below. Some refrigerators have built-in thermometers to measure their internal temperature. For those refrigerators without this feature, keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator to monitor the temperature. This can be critical in the event of a power outage. When the power goes back on, if the refrigerator is still 40 °F, the food is safe. Foods held at temperatures above 40 °F for more than 2 hours should not be consumed. Appliance thermometers are specifically designed to provide accuracy at cold temperatures. Be sure refrigerator/freezer doors are closed tightly at all times. Don't open refrigerator/freezer doors more often than necessary and close them as soon as possible.

Specialized Compartments

Sealed crisper drawers provide an optimal storage environment for fruits and vegetables. Vegetables require higher humidity conditions while fruits require lower humidity conditions. Some crispers are equipped with controls to allow the consumer to customize each drawer's humidity level. An adjustable temperature meat drawer maximizes the storage time of meats and cheeses. Additional cool air is directed into the drawer to keep items very cold without freezing.

Safety of Foods Stored on the Door

Don't store perishable foods in the door. Even though there is an egg compartment on many refrigerator doors, eggs should be stored in the carton on the shelf. The temperature of the storage bins in the door fluctuate more than the temperature in the cabinet. So, keep the door closed as much as possible. Also, make sure that there are no food containers blocking the door and preventing a firm seal.

A refrigerator is one of the most important pieces of equipment in the kitchen for keeping foods safe. These electric units are so commonplace today, we forget a refrigerator was once little more than a box with a block of ice that used to supply a rather undependable source of cold air. Pay attention to your refrigerator temperatures and keep your family safe.

At Fiesta Mart, we continually monitor the temperatures in all of our store refrigerators and freezers to make sure our foods are safe. Automatic closing doors help keep a more consistent temperature within the refrigerator units, even if a customer forgets to physically close the door. We also check expiration dates on individual food packages and use the FIFO rule (first-in-first-out) to assure you that your groceries are as fresh as possible.

For more information on food safety, visit the web site for the USDA.



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