Nutrition Column – Ensuring the Safety and Quality of Stored Food

Spring is here! Along with the many wonders of spring comes the dubious task of spring cleaning. Whether your spring cleaning resembles a military operation or is a "lick and a promise," be sure to include your kitchen cupboards, your freezer and especially your refrigerator. As you clean, take time to evaluate the quality and safety of your stored food.

In the refrigerator:

That half-used package of bologna that’s been sitting in your fridge for months could be harboring Listeria monocytogenes, a potentially dangerous bacteria for people with compromised immune systems, including pregnant women and their unborn babies. Listeria most often is associated with perishable, ready-to-eat foods that have not been properly handled, prepared or stored. Here are some tips for keeping your kitchen clean, cold and free of long-lost leftovers.

– Purchase a thermometer to hang in your refrigerator, and regularly check it. The optimal temperature for a refrigerator is between 35 degrees and 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

– At least two to three times a year, clean everything out of the refrigerator and wipe down walls and shelves with a solution of water and baking soda. Clean out, then wash and dry all drawers. Do this once a month if your household includes someone who is elderly, pregnant, very young or chronically ill.

– Check expiration dates and "use-by" dates as you put foods back in the refrigerator. Make sure foods are either wrapped or in covered containers and dated to help with rotation. Rather than risk foodborne illness, throw away any food that is past its prime.

– Don’t overload the refrigerator. It is important to allow the cool air to circulate.

In the cupboards and pantries:

– Always think FIFO – first in, first out – when putting food away in your cupboard. Place new purchases behind the ones currently in the cupboard so that you rotate your stock, using up the older stock first.

– Check expiration and use-by dates and discard any food that has expired or past its prime. Date packages that have no dates on them. This is helpful when you are trying to rotate stock so that the oldest products are used first.

– Look for signs of spoilage. Throw away cans that are cracked, bulging, leaking or that squirt liquid when opened. Do not taste the food because it may be contaminated with potentially deadly organisms.

– Check for signs of insect or rodent infestation. Storing opened, non-perishable foods in dry, airtight containers will help maintain freshness and keep insects and rodents out.

– Make sure your cupboards and pantries are clean, dry, dark and cool. For optimal food storage, cupboards and pantries should be kept between 50 degrees and 70 degrees F.

In the freezer:

– Because bacteria do not grow at freezer temperatures, the most important issue with frozen food is maintaining its quality.

– Check the temperature of your freezer. For higher quality food storage, a temperature of zero degrees F or less should always be maintained.

– Make sure stored foods are wrapped sufficiently to minimize freezer burn. It’s recommended that foods purchased frozen be stored in their original packaging.

– Check labels on both commercially packaged frozen food and food prepared at home for "best used by" dates and/or the date frozen. If properly packaged, most food will maintain good quality in a freezer for at least six months. If in the past you have not labeled food when you put it in the freezer, start now. Labeling each package with the type of food, date and number of servings makes it easy to identify what foods you have as well as allowing you to determine the foods’ freshness.

– Organize your freezer with the oldest foods in front so that they will be used first.

– Always remember: If in doubt, throw it out!

For more tips on assuring the safety and quality of foods stored in the refrigerator or freezer, ask your local county Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office for a copy of Fact Sheet 9.310, Food Storage for Safety and Quality. The fact sheet also can be found online at, Food and Nutrition On-Line, Fact Sheet 9.310.

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension