How do I know if food left at room temperature is still safe to eat?

When in Doubt, Throw it Out!

You cannot see or smell bacterial contamination. Mold that appears to be growing only on the surface may grow invisible roots into softer foods. Do not rely on a visual inspection or "smell test" to tell you whether or not a food is safe.

The Danger Zone

  • Potentially hazardous food that stays in the temperature "danger zone", 40-140 °F (4-60 °C), for more than 2 hours should be discarded.*
  • Potentially hazardous foods are those foods that spoil most easily, such as unshelled eggs, raw meats, fish, shell fish, dairy products, almost all cooked foods.
  • This time is cumulative, so it includes time bringing the food home from the grocery store, time before cooking, time after cooking, and so on. The reason is that while cooking may destroy bacteria or other pathogens, it doesn't always destroy the toxins that they have produced.
  • So in general, regarding perishable foods like meat, most dairy, unshelled eggs and shell eggs (in the US), cooked casseroles, and so on: if the food (or its perishable components) have been at room temperature for more than two hours, you should discard that food.
  • To avoid the danger zone, keep cooked food hot until ready to eat, then refrigerate immediately. Separate large items into smaller containers to help them to cool more quickly. If you’re defrosting something, do it in the fridge or under cold running water.

Why does cooking not completely "reset the clock"?

  • Some bacteria leave behind harmful protein toxins that cannot be "killed" (denatured) by cooking. Cooking food is only effective against live organisms, not their toxic waste products. Spoiled food cannot be cooked back to safety and must be discarded.
  • Cooking is pasteurization, not sterilization. Pasteurization means killing most microbes, so as to render the food safe for human consumption. Sterilization methods (e.g. pressure-canning and irradiation) are the only safe methods for longer-term room-temperature storage. Otherwise, the danger zone rules always apply.
  • Even sterilized food can only remain sterile under an airtight seal, e.g. when properly canned or vacuum-sealed. Once it is opened, it is no longer sterile. Air contains countless bacteria and molds, and their spores, which will readily re-colonize any suitable environment they encounter. Cooked food tends to be an ideal medium for growth.

Regulation and Risks

Follow the guidelines set out by reputable regulatory agencies, especially when serving others. Local organizations include:
  • FDA Food Code (USDA)
  • CFIA (Canada)
  • Food Standards Agency (UK)
Other regulatory sources apply in other parts of the word, but major food safety organizations usually agree in essence (if not in complete detail) on most issues.
Failure to follow reputable guidelines is irresponsible if you are serving guests, and failure to follow your specific local codes is likely to be illegal if you are serving customers.
Health codes tend to be very conservative, to fully protect the community. You have the right to take risks on yourself by ignoring their recommendations, but please do not risk the safety of others.

Again, When in Doubt...

Once again, if you suspect spoilage or contamination, please, throw it out.
* Note: this is the FDA's rule. Other agencies may have variations on it. Additionally, government agencies generally make very conservative recommendations - they're trying to make sure that no one who follows the rules gets sick. Breaking the rules means maybe taking on some risk. That's up to you - just remember, eventually someone gets unlucky, and food poisoning is not fun.

Helpful Resources

  • Wikipedia: Food Safety
  • USDA Fact Sheet
  • Still Tasty - has information on storage methods/times for almost every food.

Further Reading/Frequently Asked

  • Why is it dangerous to eat meat which has been left out and then cooked?
  • How long can I store a food in the pantry, refrigerator, or freezer?
  • What Do I Need To Know About Temperature and Food Safety?
  • Is there a problem with defrosting meat on the counter?
  • How long can cooked food be safely stored at room/warm temperature?
  • Is it safe to cook a steak that was left out (raw) for 7 hours?
  • How long can eggs be unrefrigerated before becoming unsafe to eat?
  • Should I refrigerate eggs?

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