Published on 12/13/07

Foods stored too hot can harbor pathogens

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

A turkey sandwich can be a wonderful after-the-holidays treat. But don’t wait too long to eat it or other leftovers, says a University of Georgia food safety expert.

“A good rule of thumb is to keep your leftovers somewhere between three and five days,” said Judy Harrison, an UGA Cooperative Extension food safety specialist with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “After five days you should discard them.”

Eating leftovers that have been kept too long or stored improperly can make people sick with a variety of foodborne pathogens, she said.

“Some bacteria, like Listeria, can grow at refrigerator temperatures,” she said. “And the longer you keep the food, the more time bacteria have to grow to high numbers.”

If your holiday meal is setup as a buffet, she says, don’t save the leftovers.

“Food on buffets comes in contact with a lot of people,” she said. “This greatly increases the risk of contamination.”

Food kept at room temperature for two hours or less can be stored for later use. Big pots of foods, like chili or stews, must be safely cooled before being stored in the refrigerator or freezer, she said.

Hot food can be cooled by placing the pot in an ice-water bath. Fill your kitchen sink with ice, place the food pot on the ice and stir the food until it cools.

“I got a call from a church group who recently made huge pots of chili and placed the hot pots in the refrigerator,” she said. “The next day when they pulled out the chili, it was still warm. They wanted to know what they should do. I had to tell them to throw it all out.”

It is best to store leftover food in small portions in shallow containers, preferably less than three inches deep.

“Spread containers out so the air (in the refrigerator) will circulate around them and cool the food quickly,” she said.

Foods should be refrigerated at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less and frozen at 0 F or less.

To check the temperature of your home appliances, use a refrigerator/freezer thermometer. “Put the thermometer in the warmest part of the refrigerator or freezer, which is typically toward the front of the top shelf,” she said.

Food will freeze at temperatures higher than 0 F, she said. But food will maintain the best quality for the longest period of time if it’s frozen at 0 F or below.

Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.