November 16, 2017

Food Safety: How healthy is your refrigerator?

This Food Safety article originally appeared in full on Health Inspector’s Notebook, a website by Jim Chan, a retired Toronto Public Health Inspector. Jim has generously agreed to share his knowledge and expertise with us here on the FoodReach site.

Let’s talk about the importance of food safety and what can be done to reduce the risk of food poisoning. 

Many people do not recognize the serious nature of food poisoning and some people confuse food poisoning with a common flu or a ‘stomach flu’. Also, many people assume restaurant food & meals are the cause of food poisoning, but according to a Toronto Board of Health report, 1 in 6 of all food poisoning cases are caused by food prepared at home. 

The refrigerator is one of the most important pieces of equipment in your kitchen for keeping foods safe for your family. If the refrigerator is not working properly, it can increase the risk of food poisoning, food spoilage as well as safety hazard such as electrical fire. 

Your refrigerator is probably filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, meat, cheese, milk and eggs and your food choices may get a PASS for healthy eating, but do you think your fridge can get a PASS on Food Safety?

What is growing in your refrigerator?

Microorganisms such as bacteria can grow rapidly in the “Danger Zone” temperature ranging between 4°C /40°F and 60°C/140°F, some bacteria can double in number in as little as 20 minutes. 


There are two different types of bacteria that can affect the wholesomeness of the food:

  1. Pathogenic bacteria: they are harmful and can cause foodborne illness (E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria). Pathogenic bacteria can grow rapidly in the “Danger Zone”, but they do not generally cause spoilage and affect the taste, smell, or appearance of a food. This is one reason that this can be a crucial food safety risk as one cannot tell that pathogenic bacteria are present. 
  2. Spoilage bacteria: In general, they affect the quality of food that has been stored in the refrigerator for too long and developing unpleasant odours, tastes, and textures, but they most likely do not cause foodborne illness.

Refrigeration slows bacterial growth, a refrigerator set at 4°C/40°F or below will protect most foods, however, some bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes thrive at cold temperatures, and if food is contaminated with Listeria, they will multiply in the refrigerator over time and can cause foodborne illness. One solution is to store foods such as processed deli meats and cold cuts in the fridge for up to a week is about the maximum. If not going to eat the meat within a few days, freeze it as Listeria cannot grow at freezing temperatures.

Refrigerator and Food Safety Tips:

  1. Refrigeration compartment: Keep temperature at 4°C /40° F, or colder. Bacteria multiply rapidly at temperatures above 4°C/ 40°F, so keep cold food cold by chilling food properly is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of food-borne illness. Always keep a fridge thermometer inside the refrigerator at all times to keep tabs on the temperature. 
  2. Freezer compartment: Keep temperature at -18°C (0°F) to keep food items frozen solid. Fresh meat, poultry or fish should be freeze immediately if not use within a few days, also put the date on packages to keep track of storage period. (Note: In the summer months when it is hot and humid in the kitchen, the refrigerator and freezer temperature can get warmer. Use the thermometer in the fridge and freezer to check that they stay cold enough.)
  3. Food storage: Always keep raw food below ready-to-eat food to prevent cross-contamination Raw meat, poultry, and seafood should be kept in sealed containers or wrapped securely to prevent raw juices from contaminating other foods as raw meat juices often contain pathogenic bacteria. (Note: Do not pack the refrigerator completely full as cool air must circulate to keep food properly chilled and safe). Some refrigerators have special features such as door bins, crisper, and meat/cheese drawers which help to make storage of foods more convenient.
  4. Thaw frozen food in the refrigerator: When thawing or defrosting food in the refrigerator, always keep food in its original packaging and on a plate or in a container (Tip: Plastic food containers such as those used for salad or baked goods are great for storing raw meat in freezer or refrigerator), place on the bottom shelf and allow 10 hours per kilogram to defrost. (Note: Do not defrost food at room temperature, bacteria can grow rapidly on food surface before the inside defrosts and increases the risk of foodborne illness.) 
  5. Put hot food in the refrigerator: Hot or warm food in small containers can be placed directly in the refrigerator or it can be rapidly chilled in an ice or cold water bath before refrigerating. (Note: Putting piping hot food in the refrigerator can increase the temperature to the range within the Danger Zone. A large pot of hot food like soup or stew should be put in shallow containers before being refrigerated. Large cut of meat or whole poultry should be cut and divided into smaller pieces, wrapped or placed in a containers before refrigerating.)
  6. Avoid storing food in the refrigerator door: Do not store perishable foods in the door as the temperature in the door fluctuate more than the temperature in the cabinet when the door is open. Keep the door closed as much as possible and only store non-perishable food such as juice, soda, water in the door shelves or bins.
  7. Keep refrigerator clean: Keeping the refrigerator clean is an important step of food safety. Wipe up spills immediately and clean surfaces thoroughly with hot, soapy water; then rinse with a sanitizer such as a mixture of bleach and water. (Note: Once a week, check the food in the refrigerator and throw out old perishable foods that should no longer be eaten.)
During a power outage

With no power, a full upright or chest freezer will keep food frozen for about 2 days while a half-full freezer will keep food frozen for 1 day. The refrigerator will keep food cool for 4 to 6 hours providing the door is kept close. The following check list can help keep food safe:

  • Keep refrigerator and freezer doors close as much as possible.
  • If the power will be out for a long time, move the food from the refrigerator to the freezer to prolong storage time.
  • Purchase ice if possible and use ice to help keep the refrigerator and freezer cold.
  • If frozen food has thawed, cook it when power has restored. Sometimes it can be re-frozen but check to ensure it still contains ice crystals or feels cold. It is important to check and discard any thawed food that has risen to above 4°C (40°F) for over 2 hours, especially food with an off colour or odor. The best food safety precaution: 

When in doubt, throw it out

Jim Chan  

About Jim:

Jim Chan
Certified Public Health Inspector, Canada

Jim Chan began his career as a Public Health Inspector at Toronto Public Health in 1977 after completing his science degree at University of Guelph and the Environmental Health program at Ryerson University. Throughout his 36-year career, Jim has been responsible for managing and implementing programs and activities dedicated to the protection of public health. Programs such as Food Safety Inspection (DineSafe Toronto), Communicable Disease Control (including case management during the SARS outbreak in 2003 and health & safety during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009), Infection Control, Tobacco Control Enforcement and Health Hazard Investigation.

Jim retired on October 31, 2013 from Toronto Public Health. After retirement, Jim began an interesting career as a food safety consultant to media outlets & on-air guest in various TV shows, presenting at conferences and workshops, developing food safety training materials, and promoting public health and food safety using social media. Jim’s recent adventure is teaching a food safety course to public health inspectors at Conestoga College, School of Health & Life Sciences in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada.

You can follow Jim online at:
Twitter: @phijimchan