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In honor of Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day on Nov. 15, let’s play Food: Keep or Toss? Should you “keep” or “toss” the following food:
1. Tacos left on the kitchen counter overnight?
2. Meat thawed all day on the kitchen counter?
3. Cut or peeled fruits and vegetables left at room temperature more than two hours?
4. Leftover pizza placed in the refrigerator within two hours after it was cooked?
5. Leftovers kept in the refrigerator for more than a week?
OK. How did you do? All of the food except the pizza in question No. 4 should be tossed. Why?
1. Toss the tacos. Even if you reheat the tacos left out overnight, some bacteria can form a heat-resistant toxin that cooking won’t destroy. Refrigerate perishable foods within two hours.
2. Toss the meat. As with the tacos, bacteria may have formed a heat-resistant toxin when the meat was left on the kitchen counter. The best place to thaw frozen perishable foods like frozen meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, fruits and cooked pasta and even rice is in the refrigerator. Make sure your refrigerator is 40 degrees or lower. Thaw packages of meat, poultry and seafood on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. This prevents the juices from dripping on other foods.
3. Toss the fruit/veggies. While perfectly safe at room temperature in the peel, once fruit is cut, bacteria on the outside can be transferred to the inside. Refrigerate cut/peeled fruits, veggies and other perishable foods within two hours. Just one bacteria in foods can grow to 2,097,152 bacteria in seven hours.
4. Keep the pizza. This pizza is the safest food you have. If perishable foods have been at room temperature less than two hours (make that one hour when temperatures are higher than 90 degrees), they should be safe. Refrigerate promptly and eat within three to four days.
5. Toss the leftovers. Even refrigerated leftovers may become unsafe within three to four days. You can’t always see or smell or taste if food is unsafe. You could get sick from tasting even a little bit of the food.
I’m not sure who declared Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day, but it’s a good idea, especially a week before Thanksgiving. You’ll need all the space you can find in the refrigerator in the coming week.
Thinking about Thanksgiving, let’s go back to question No. 2 and thawing food. I’m specifically thinking about that large turkey that’s in the freezer for next week’s feast. Safely thawing a turkey does require some careful planning.
As the answer in the above question indicates, the best place to thaw frozen perishable items is in the refrigerator. A frozen turkey left thawing on the counter more than two hours is not at a safe temperature. Even though the center of the bird may still be frozen, the outside of the turkey is in the “danger zone” between 40-140 degrees, a temperature where foodborne bacteria multiply rapidly.
It takes about 24 hours in the refrigerator to thaw five pounds of turkey. If you have a 20-pound bird, you’re going to need to get it out of the freezer and into the refrigerator on Saturday or Sunday. A thawed turkey can stay in the refrigerator for one to two days before cooking.
For last minute information on cooking your holiday feast, call the Meat and Poultry Hotline at (888) 674-6854 or visit www.fsis.usda.gov.
Source: Special thanks to my friend and colleague Alice Henneman from University on Nebraska, Lincoln and Joyce Jensen, Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department for their materials on Food: Keep or Toss? at food.unl.edu.
Cheryle Syracuse is a Family and Consumer Science staff member and can be reached at NC Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center at 253-2610.