Will this refrigerated food make me sick?

How to determine if refrigerated food is still safe to eat.

Moldy tomatoes

Have you ever reached into the refrigerator and saw that your shredded cheese had mold on it, or noticed that the pack of chicken you planned to cook for dinner had a funny smell or was slimy? Mold, sticky or slimy food can be caused by microorganisms, which are tiny life forms that cannot be seen without a microscope. They include viruses, bacteria, yeast, mold and some parasites. There are two groups of microorganisms to be concerned about: spoilage organisms and pathogens.

Spoilage organisms such as bacteria, yeast or mold decrease food quality and safety. When this happens to food it can have bad tastes and smells or change in texture or color. Do not eat spoiled food. It is possible that spoiled food can make you sick if eaten. Moldy food is an example of spoiled food. By the time you see mold on your food, it has already spread throughout the product and needs to be thrown away. When in doubt, throw it out.

Pathogens are germs that can make you sick. They include viruses, parasites and bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella. E. coli is commonly found on beef products and Salmonella is commonly found on poultry, including chicken and turkey, and eggs. Most pathogens do not change the way food looks, smells or tastes, so there is no way to know if pathogens are present in your food.

To control pathogen growth, food must be kept out of the temperature danger zone, which is the range of temperatures that microorganisms grow the fastest. This range is between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. For example, meat should not be allowed to thaw on the counter because room temperature exposes the meat to the temperature danger zone.

Most refrigerated foods are known as TCS (time and temperature control for safety) foods. Refrigerated foods need to be kept at a temperature of 40 F or less and frozen foods at 0 F or less. When TCS foods, like meat and dairy, are kept for more than 2 hours in the temperature danger zone, this is referred to as time and temperature abuse. Time and temperature abuse allows for bacterial growth, which can cause foodborne illness. Foodborne illness symptoms can include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

It is important to note that just because TCS foods are stored at the right temperatures, it does not mean they will last forever in the refrigerator. For safety, TCS foods have different storage times when stored in the refrigerator. If you have leftovers, small amounts of hot foods can be placed directly in the refrigerator. If you have a large amount of food, divide that food into smaller, shallow containers before chilling. If you are storing food after a trip to the grocery store or market, immediately refrigerate or freeze foods that need to be cold, like meat, dairy and eggs. Food that is kept in a freezer at a temperature of 0 F or less can be stored indefinitely safely but may lose quality.

It is important for human health to keep food safe. Keep TCS foods out of the temperature danger zone to help control microorganism growth. Store TCS foods in the refrigerator or freezer, and keep raw meat, poultry and seafood in a sealed container or wrapping to prevent juices from leaking onto other foods. Finally, always wash your hands before preparing meals and after handling meat. If foods show signs of spoilage, throw it away. For more food safety storage guidelines, visit Foodsafety.gov.

If you have questions related to food handling, preparing and storage, you can browse the Michigan State University Extension Safe Food and Water website, Ask an Expert or call the MSU Extension Consumer Food Safety Hotline at 877-643-9882.

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