Could Your Fridge Be Making You Sick?

Careful maintenance and cleaning procedures must be followed at all times to make sure that your fridge isn’t doing you more harm than good.
March 14, 2016

Fridges and freezers are often thought of as the “backbone” of the kitchen. Careful maintenance and cleaning procedures must be followed at all times to make sure that your fridge isn’t doing you more harm than good.

Fridge and Freezer Temperatures

Monitoring the temperature of your fridge and freezer is essential. It can help to prevent not only food poisoning but also food spoilage and wastage.

Many fridges are not set to the correct temperature and as a result, create an unsafe environment for food storage. Harmful bacteria, such as Listeria monocytogenes, will multiply at an alarming rate unless kept at the proper temperature.

To maintain food safety standards, keep the fridge below 5°C and the freezer below -15°C. Keeping food at these temperatures or below has been proven to significantly slow the growth of harmful bacteria and minimise food spoilage.

The temperature the fridge or freezer is set at should always be re-assessed from season to season to make sure food is kept at the right temperature all year round. For example, you may need to increase the temperature of your fridge in the cooler months to avoid food accidental freezing.

Why Maintaining Your Fridge Is Important

Proper fridge cleaning and maintenance is vitally important, though is often overlooked and viewed as “too hard”. However, what you don’t see in your fridge could actually be contaminating your food and making you sick. Did you know that dirty fridges can act as a breeding ground for harmful bacteria such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli?

A study done on the average frost-free home fridge found that salad drawers alone contained an average of 7,850 bacteria units per square centimetre. To put this into perspective, the recommended amount of bacteria units per square centimetre for safe food preparation is between 0 and 10. Proper cleaning should be performed regularly to avoid bacterial growth of this size.

There’s more to keeping your fridge maintained than just setting the temperature control. One of the easiest ways to keep your fridge at the correct temperature is to make sure the doors are closed properly. Fridge and freezer doors that are accidentally left open can cause food to enter the temperature danger zone (between 5 °C and 60 °C), which allows harmful bacteria to grow. This also allows moisture to enter the fridge which rapidly speeds up the development of anaerobic bacteria.

Over time, door seals may also deteriorate, which can result in temperature instability and higher energy bills. So, make sure you replace your seals before this starts to happen.

How to Properly Clean Your Fridge

First, remove all the food from the fridge and be sure to place any perishable items into a cold container with ice-packs. All shelves should be removed and cleaned using hot soapy water to kill any potential bacteria. They should then be allowed to dry thoroughly before being replaced into the fridge. Going forward, ensure you clean up spills immediately using a chemical sanitiser and regularly wipe down shelves.

Food Storage

Correct food storage is essential. Within your fridge, there are different temperature “zones”. For example, high-risk foods such as milk, seafood, raw meat, eggs and even cooked rice and pasta, should never be stored in the door of the fridge. This is usually the warmest place and allows for the most bacteria growth. Instead, store high-risk foods on the shelves of the fridge where the temperature is more stable.

Raw meats should be covered and stored on the bottom shelf of the fridge to avoid harmful bacteria travelling down through the other shelves of the fridge and contaminating ready-to-eat food. This rule also applies to defrost raw meat.

Always store food in strong, airtight containers. Make sure your containers are specially designed for food storage and are made of non-toxic materials. Avoid storing food uncovered in the fridge as this can lead to cross-contamination.

Freezer Safety

Freezers need to be set to -15°C or below and should be checked regularly using a thermometer to ensure the temperature remains stable. Avoid overcrowding freezers. Air needs to be free to circulate around frozen foods to keep them at the correct temperature.

When storing food in the freezer, it’s important it’s packaged properly. Food should be placed in airtight containers or wrapped and sealed tightly before being placed in the freezer. Meats that have been pre-packaged can simply be placed in the freezer as is, there’s no need to unwrap them.

Cooked or pre-prepared foods must always be cooled before they’re placed in the freezer.  When storing cooked foods such as soups and stews, place the servings you wish to freeze in shallow freezer-safe containers and leave on the bench to cool with the lid off. Be sure to monitor the cooling process closely, as food should only be cooled to a point where there is no longer steam rising from the container. The temperature should not drop to 60°C. Leaving food out for longer than necessary may result in food entering the danger zone. Once the food has cooled, firmly seal the container and place it in the freezer.

Also, remember that not all foods should be frozen. Fruits and vegetables with high water content, such as lettuce, watermelon, cucumber and bean sprouts, don’t freeze well and can go spongy when defrosted. Freezing raw eggs should also be avoided because it causes the liquid to expand, cracking the shells.

Food Expiration Dates

The stock in your fridge and freezer should be rotated regularly using the ‘first in, first out rule’.

Going through the items in your fridge and throwing out of any out-of-date items is a must. Expired food can contaminate other foods in the fridge and could be harmful if eaten.

Freezer stock audits are also important. It’s easy to purchase meat and other items in bulk and then freeze them for later use. However, without proper labels, it can be hard to know when they were purchased. Foods that don’t have an expiration date printed on the packaging should be labelled with the date they were purchased. If you can’t remember when the food was purchased, it should always be thrown out. Remember, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Keeping Your Fridge Safe During a Power Outage

Power outages can be inconvenient and result in food spoilage. However, with proper planning, you can manage the risks.

Keep the door closed! This is the most important thing you can do to ensure your food stays safe for longer - and it also happens to be the easiest.

When your power goes out, go straight to the fridge and move all the perishable items to the coolest part of the fridge – the middle shelves. Be sure to take all items out of the doors and from the top shelf if possible, as these areas are generally the first to heat up during a power outage.

If you can, store high-risk foods in a styrofoam container within the fridge to keep them cooler for even longer.

Once the power returns, you will need to go through the food before using anything. Each item should be evaluated separately as different types of food carry different risks. While butter and vegetables might be safe to consume, meat, seafood and milk may need to be thrown out. Use a thermometer to determine if these foods are safe to eat.

Freezers will usually be able to keep food frozen for 24 hours provided the door has been left closed. Any food that has shown signs of defrosting should not be refrozen. It can, however, be cooked, as long as the temperature has not risen above 5°C.

http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html  

http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/food_safety_storage?open  

http://www.foodsafety.asn.au/resources/fridge-and-freezer-food-safety/

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2011/10/19/is-your-fridge-a-breeding-ground-for-bacteria_n_1019160.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2050643/Most-dangerous-place-fridge-With-8-000-bacteria-square-centimetre-salad-drawer.html

This public health information was produced and distributed by the Australian Institute of Food Safety Foundation.