Produce storage confusion: Why refrigerate this and not that?

Some food safety guidelines can be confusing. Let's clarify why some of the same type of produce needs refrigeration and some doesn’t.

An apple on a table.
Photo: Unsplash/Chris Dez.

Food safety guidelines are intended to prevent foodborne illness and are based on scientific data.  Storage recommendations are based on various factors, with the primary consideration given to the safety of food.  Shelf stable food can be safely stored at room temperature; however, food that is time and temperature controlled for safety (abbreviated as TCS), refers to food that needs to be stored in the refrigerator or freezer.  For example, crackers are safely stored in the pantry, whereas milk must be stored in the refrigerator. 

Factors that contribute to storage recommendations

Despite these seemingly straight-forward guidelines, it can still be confusing. Take apples for example. A fresh, whole apple is safe to store at room temperature for about one week, but once you cut it, it must be refrigerated, unless it is cooked into a pie. Then you can store it at room temperature for up to two days.  

These varying storage conditions for fresh produce are dependent on a number of things, including:

  • Pathogens. Some produce is more likely to harbor pathogens, so it is recommended that they be refrigerated to limit their growth. Lettuce for example should be stored in the refrigerator because it is more likely to allow pathogens to grow than many other types of produce.
  • Humidity. Some types of produce lose water quickly and need a low-humidity level to help them retain their water, such as in the produce drawer of the refrigerator.
  • Ethylene content. Ethylene causes produce to ripen fast, and cold storage decreases the release of ethylene.  Storing apples in the refrigerator, therefore, will just extend their shelf life.
  • Cool temperatures. This can prevent some produce from achieving their good flavor or texture. For example, tomatoes can lose their flavor when refrigerated or bananas turn black and do not ripen properly.

 Here is an example of a storage chart for apples:

Type of Apple

Storage Recommendation


Fresh, whole apples

Room temperature is safe, but can also store in the refrigerator to last longer

Apples are safe at room temperature, but their higher ethylene content contributes to faster ripening.  Apples stored in the refrigerator can last for several weeks.

Cut apples or apples in a modified form, such as applesauce


Cut produce is more susceptible to pathogens, so storing in the refrigerator can limit pathogen growth.

Baked apple pie

● Room temperature for up to two days


● Refrigerator for up to four days

Fruit pies are made with sugar and the combination of sugar and acid in the fruit is sufficient to retard bacterial growth at room temperature. You can extend this shelf life a little by storing in the refrigerator. 

Keep in mind though, any pies made with custard, cream, eggs or sugar substitutes, or contain fresh fruit (like a strawberry pie that was not baked) always require refrigeration. 

The USDA FoodKeeper app or website is a great resource to get information on storage conditions, shelf life of food and other helpful information. For more information on food safety, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food & Water website.

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