How Does Cross-Contamination Happen in a Refrigerator?

Many of us don't think of the fridge as a high-risk area for cross-contamination, but that's simply not the case. Find out why.
October 29, 2019

What is cross-contamination?

Cross-contamination is the process by which food becomes contaminated with harmful substances or agents. For example, when food poisoning bacteria on food spreads to other foods, surfaces, hands or equipment. It’s extremely easy for cross-contamination to occur, especially in a commercial kitchen, which has many moving parts (and people).

Contaminated food is a serious health risk; germs, food allergens, chemicals and physical objects can make customers sick and cause allergic reactions, injuries or choking hazards. A food business’s number one priority should be to prevent cross-contamination and other food safety hazards from happening in the business.

Cross-contamination in the fridge

Many people don’t think of the fridge when they think of areas where food contamination can occur, but that’s simply not the case. If safe food storage procedures aren’t followed, it’s just as easy for cross-contamination to occur in the fridge as anywhere else in the kitchen.


  1. Peanut satay sauce in a cracked container leaks onto another food item in the fridge. The other food item is now contaminated with peanut allergens. Food allergens are not destroyed by the cooking process. If that food item is prepared and served to a customer with a peanut allergy, it could cause a life-threatening allergic reaction.
  2. An employee cleans the refrigerator using a chlorine bleach solution in a spray bottle. A box of fresh produce is uncovered on one of the shelves near where the employee is cleaning. The produce is now contaminated with an invisible layer of chemical solution that could cause a customer to complain about the taste or to get sick.
  3. An employee breaks a glass in the walk-in cooler. On the bottom shelves of the fridge, there are uncovered containers of pre-cut vegetables for salads and sandwich fillings. If even a tiny shard of glass has gotten into the pre-cut vegetables and those vegetables are served to a customer, it could cause a serious injury.
  4. A tray of raw chicken breasts is stored above a container of chocolate mousse. Juices from the raw meat drip onto the ready-to-eat dessert, contaminating it with harmful bacteria. Many types of bacteria and other harmful microorganisms can survive and even grow in the refrigerator (Listeria monocytogenes bacteria grows at temperatures as low as 0°C). If the contaminated mousse is served to a customer, they could get seriously ill with food poisoning.

The examples above demonstrate just how easy it is for cross-contamination to occur in a refrigerator if safe food handling procedures are not followed.


To prevent cross-contamination from happening in the refrigerator, follow the food safety rules and best practices below:

  • Place raw meat, poultry and seafood on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator in covered containers or sealed plastic bags to prevent meat juices from dripping onto and contaminating other food.
  • Keep ready-to-eat and cooked food separate from raw food.
  • Make sure the refrigerator is set to 5°C or below. According to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the best temperature setting for a refrigerator is 3°C.
  • Don’t put hot food in the fridge, as it can raise the overall temperature inside. Follow the requirements for cooling cooked potentially hazardous foods, also called high-risk foods, in Australia’s Food Standards Code.

The best way to prevent cross-contamination in a food business is through strict food safety policies and procedures and food safety training.

The Australian Institute of Food Safety delivers high-quality, nationally recognised food safety training courses for Food Handlers and Food Safety Supervisors in all recognised food sectors in Australia. For more information about our food safety courses, contact our support team.