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Food Safety: How Long Can You Leave Food in the Fridge?

Aug 10, 2010

Knowledge of proper food safety is important in preventing food borne illness. If not refrigerated properly, foods become more susceptible to disease-causing bacteria. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends different amounts of time that food can be refrigerated, depending on the food group and whether it is fresh or processed. The USDA recommendations assume that refrigerator temperatures always remain at 40 F (or below). The amount of time that food is left out at room temperature should also be minimized. When food is left out at room temperature, bacteria starts to grow and the food begins to spoil. This article discusses different food groups and the amounts of time they can safety remain in the refrigerator.

Leftovers

Leftovers should not be left in the refrigerator longer than four days. If food has been left out for more than two hours, as a general rule, it should be discarded. When eating leftovers, the USDA advises reheating them to 325 degrees F. Reheating food to 325 degrees F or a higher temperature will eliminate bacteria. If  leftovers are not consumed within 4 days, they should be stored in a freezer. If leftovers contain meat products, they should be eaten within two days of being refrigerated.

Dairy

When trying to determine if dairy has spoiled, you may think that you can just look for mold on cheese or curds in milk. Unfortunately, many molds begin growing before they are visible to the naked eye. This is why it is important to know how long dairy products should be kept in the fridge--this will keep you from defaulting to the “smell test” or looking for mold. If a milk carton is opened, the milk should be consumed within seven to ten days; even if that time is before the expiration date. Cheese varies depending on the variety. Harder cheeses stay fresh longer, with an average of three to four weeks, if opened. Soft cheese, like brie and ricotta, should be used within one week of opening.

Beef

Beef can be the source of many food borne illnesses. Common organisms such as staphylococcus, listeria, and E.coli are found in the intestines of cattle and can cause severe food borne illness if the beef is not refrigerated correctly. Different forms of beef have different protocols for refrigeration. Fresh beef and lunch meats should stay in the refrigerator no longer than three to five days after being opened. Canned beef can stay in the refrigerator three to four days after being opened. Homemade stews and dishes with beef cannot stay in the refrigerator longer than one to two days.

Chicken

Chicken contains many of the same bacteria as beef. Chicken also contains the bacterium campylobacter, which causes stomach upset. In order to reduce bacteria, fresh chicken can only safely stay in the refrigerator for one to two days. Cooked chicken such as rotisserie chicken, chicken nuggets and processed chicken can be refrigerated for three to four days. Chicken lunch meat can stay in the refrigerator for two weeks (if unopened); an opened package of chicken lunch meat will stay safe no longer than three to five days.

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