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Food Safety Month: Keep refrigerator in proper condition

September has been National Food Safety Month for a long time. This year, the month’s special topic is refrigeration.

Do you know how cold your refrigerator is? Unless you have thermometers built into your fingers, you need to use a thermometer to ensure your refrigerator is at or below 40 degrees. And that dial? It’s important, but it is not a thermometer.

Research has shown as many as 43 percent off home refrigerators have been found to be at temperatures above 40 degrees, putting it in the food safety “danger zone,” where harmful bacteria can multiply. Help slow the growth of bacteria by using a refrigerator thermometer to tell if your refrigerator is at or below 40 degrees. If it isn’t, use that dial to adjust the temperature so it will be colder.

The second part of food safety in the refrigerator is to plan to prevent cross-contamination. The refrigerator is cold but cross-contamination can and does happen. Bacteria can survive and some can even grow in cool, moist environments like the refrigerator. Listeria bacteria can grow at temperatures below 40 degrees.

To reduce the risk of cross-contamination in your refrigerator, keep fresh fruits and vegetables separate from raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs; clean up food and beverage spills immediately and clean your refrigerator regularly with hot water and liquid soap. Don’t forget to clean the refrigerator walls and the undersides of shelves. 

Refrigerator temperatures can slow the growth of bacteria but will not stop the growth of bacteria in food. If food is left out at room temperature for more than two hours, putting it into the refrigerator will only slow bacterial growth, not kill it.

Protect your family by following the two-hour rule — refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, cut fresh fruits and vegetables, and all cooked leftovers within two hours of cooking or purchasing. Refrigerate within one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees.

While refrigeration does slow bacterial growth, most perishables will only keep for a few days in the refrigerator. To keep perishables longer than a few days, freeze it. 

The final component is about the produce bin. Some think if you put only fruits and vegetables in there, you don’t have to worry about keeping it clean. But naturally-occurring bacteria in fresh fruits and vegetables can cause cross-contamination in your refrigerator. A recent National Science Foundation International study found the refrigerator produce compartment was the number one “germiest” area in consumers’ kitchens. 

To prevent the buildup of bacteria that can cause food poisoning, clean your produce bin and other bins in your refrigerator often with hot water and liquid soap, rinse thoroughly and dry with a clean cloth towel or allow to air dry outside of the refrigerator.

For more recipes and tips from Purdue Extension Educator Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross, subscribe to the Food & Nutrition email newsletter.

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