By Kristen Browning-Blas
The Denver Post
(Photo by Getty Images, Illustration by Maureen Scance, The Denver Post)
What better way to show your loved ones you care, than to make sure your fridge is clean, cold and well- organized?
You might blame the restaurant where you had dinner the night before, but most food-poisoning cases start at home.
In fact, food-borne illnesses are three times more likely to occur in private homes than in commercial kitchens, says Denver dietitian Mary Lee Chin. Many cases are due to improper storage, unsafe food handling, lack of cleanliness and poor refrigerator maintenance.
Even the most orderly looking fridge can harbor foods that can make you sick.
After Chin e-mailed us confessing her own food-storage sins — she was shocked to learn that the refrigerator door is too warm for storing eggs; "Isn't that why they have those little egg holes?" — we wondered what icebox infractions ordinary people are committing.
We tagged along as Chin inspected the kitchen of Carmen Mix, who volunteered to be our guinea pig. The mother of two small children worries about limp celery and moldy cheese and hopes to persuade her mother not to keep leftovers so long.
First, Chin checks the seal on Mix's 3-year-old GE model.
"There should be a slight tug when it opens," says Chin. That tells you the seal is working properly, one of the first things to check on an older model. A cracked seal allows air in and can cause the temperature to rise. "That creates a perfect environment for bacteria to grow."
Plus, she says, the seals have ridges that collect moisture and dirt, so clean them once in a while.
"What do you do with your settings?" the inspector asks. "Have you checked them?"
"I ... no," says Mix, with a nervous laugh. "It's probably set to what it came at."
She's lucky, because her fridge has a thermometer and it reads a perfect 40 degrees. If you don't have a built-in thermometer, buy one and make sure your fridge is set to 40 or below, says Chin.
Americans throw away, on average, more than a quarter of the
Dietitian Mary Lee Chin, right, tells Carmen Mix that she doesn't have to keep soy sauce in the fridge. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
food we buy, especially produce. "Many of us wait till it turns to lettuce soup, then we don't feel guilty about throwing it away," says Chin.
"I'd love to have our celery last longer," says Mix.
"When celery goes limp, it's because it's lost moisture," Chin says. "It's still OK to eat, but who wants to eat mushy celery?"
Keep produce in plastic bags and tightly cover cut fruit and veggies to maintain quality. Produce becomes wrinkled or mushy because the plant cells have begun to collapse, allowing the loss of nutrients and increasing bacterial growth in the compromised cells, says Chin, ticking off a list of dos and don'ts:
• Don't purchase produce with mold, bruises or cuts. Bacteria can thrive in those blemishes, and vegetable bins are the most likely place to be contaminated. Produce used for salads — lettuce and spinach, for example — grows low to the ground, where the leaves are likely to come in contact with fertilizers.
• Do buy only the amount of produce that you will use within a week.
• Do place washed produce into clean storage containers, not back into the original ones.
• Do refrigerate fresh produce within two hours of peeling or cutting.
"What about mold on cheese?" Mix asks as her daughter Whitney, 2, pokes her head into the chilled interior.
"If it's hard cheese, cut off a good portion because it does have legs, so to speak," says Chin. "On bread, if it's
Mix's son, Mason, plays with cans of pop, a better choice than milk for storing in the door. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
white, green, brown or real fuzzy-looking, don't mess with it, throw it out."
Although Mix doesn't keep her eggs in the door, she does put them in the container that came with the fridge. Chin tells her to keep the eggs in the original dated carton so that they last longer, and she'll know how old they are. You can tell if an egg is fresh by cracking it open onto a plate. If it's old, the white will spread out. A fresh egg white will stand up firmly.
While Mix holds her year-old son, Mason, just up from a nap, Chin reaches into the fridge for a jar of baby food.
"Don't feed him out of the jar and put it back in," she says. Bacteria transfers from the baby's mouth to spoon to jar, so it's best to spoon out a serving from the jar, and refrigerate the rest for another meal.
"What about leftovers? Do you label them?" Chin asks, suggesting Mix keep some masking tape and a marker handy to date her leftovers.
"We do have a lot of leftovers, with the little ones," says Mix, shifting Mason on her hip.
"Just wait til he's an adolescent," laughs Chin, who raised two sons and knows a thing or two about growing appetites.
Kristen Browning-Blas: 303-954-1440 or firstname.lastname@example.org
"The milk belongs in the refrigerator door, because it's easier to get to."
Easy access, yes, but doors consistently are warmer than the rest of the refrigerator. Rather than milk, yogurt or cold cuts — foods that spoil quickly — use the door to store condiments, bottled sauces, soft drinks and juice, which keep longer because of high sugar and/ or salt content.
"It's already cooked, so it's safe."
Just because a food has been cooked doesn't mean it will stay safe. Leftovers still need to be refrigerated within two hours.
"I don't need to wash my hands when I'm eating at home, my house is clean."
Eeeuw! Think about it. "The first mistake in any kitchen is people don't wash their hands enough," says John Woolley of Johnson & Wales University. "They think if they're not outside working on the car then it's OK." Not OK. Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently when working in the kitchen.
"I don't need to wash this melon — I'm not going to eat the peel."
Wash anything you're going to cut into. Whatever's on the outside will transfer to the inside when you cut into it. "People think, 'I'm just gonna put this melon on this cutting board,'" says Woolley. "You take that bacteria and put it on your cutting board and there's a little moisture or protein on there and the bacteria starts to grow."
Keep hot food hot, cold food cold
IN THE FRIDGE:
Between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature danger zone, where bacteria is more likely to grow at a fast rate. Your refrigerator should be set to 40 degrees or colder.
Get a thermometer if your fridge doesn't have one, to make sure it's cold enough. They are sold at grocery stores, specialty shops and restaurant suppliers.
Store seafood as close to 32 degrees as possible — toward the back of the fridge, where it's colder.
OUT OF THE FRIDGE:
Cook ground beef to 155 degrees. "Ground beef takes the outside and puts it on the inside, because you grind it all up. Anything, bacteria, that was on the outside is now on the inside," says John Woolley of Johnson & Wales University.
Cook chicken to 165 degrees; this goes for anything mixed with chicken as well. "The top end is 165 for killing bacteria on chicken," says Woolley.
Cool down soups and stews by transferring them to shallow pans so the heat dissipates quickly. It's OK to put hot food into the fridge, especially if you transfer it to smaller containers, says Sharon Franke of Good Housekeeping.
The Good Housekeeping Research Institute tested 31 containers, lids, bags, wraps and liners, and recommends these five products for keeping food fresh:
Rubbermaid Premier. Whether you're driving your special dish to a potluck or carrying lunch to work, a no-leak container is key. Here's one that will protect your car from salad dressing: Rubbermaid's Premier set ($2.50 to $9; 866-271-9249; rubbermaidpremier.com).
Nalgene. Ceramic canisters are cute but not airtight. Give flour, sugar, rice and other dried foods a longer shelf life by stashing them in Nalgene jars ($3.33 to $8.23; 800-625-4327; nalgene-outdoor.com).
Tupperware Ice Prisms. Filled with fruit or salad, Tupperware's Ice Prisms are nice enough for your buffet table — and their lids snap on tightly to keep food fresh. One downside: The containers need to be washed by hand ($17.50 to $29; 888-887-9273; tupperware.com).
Bormioli Rocco Frigoverre Plus. The Bormioli Rocco Frigoverre containers had the tightest seal in our tests. And if you're nervous about microwaving in plastic, these glassware pieces will put your mind at ease ($30 for a set of three, amazon.com).
QuickSeals. Forget scrunching, tying or clipping. Instead, close packaged goods with QuickSeals, which fit over a bag's opening to create a secure zippered seal ($1.29 for six; quickseals.com). Goodhousekeeping .com
Keep it clean
More than three out of five Americans say they wait for food to taste bad, look bad or smell bad instead of checking the expiration date, says dietitian Mary Lee Chin. The expiration or "use by" date is the date by which food should be used or frozen to ensure quality and consistency — and it should be followed, she says.
Take inventory of the contents of your refrigerator once a week or immediately before going grocery shopping.
Remove outdated foods promptly.
While cleaning, remove all food and store in a cooler.
Wipe up spills as they happen to keep your refrigerator clean, and help it to be odor-free. And if you wipe up juices from raw meat, throw out the sponge or paper towel — don't keep using it, says Good Housekeeping's Sharon Franke.
If they're removable, take the parts out and wash them in hot soapy water, says Franke.
Inside the fridge, use baking soda, a cleaner such as Fantastik or a very diluted bleach solution, says Franke. "You don't want to spray a cleaner into fridge," she says, but it is safe to use. Spray onto a sponge, then rinse off with water.
Replace filters on icemakers and water dispensers every six months or as recommended by the owner's manual.
To rid fridge of offensive odors, add a cup of baking soda to a bowl or plate and place inside refrigerator for 24 hours. A box of baking soda in the back of your fridge can help eliminate odor contamination.