The foods we love to eat can become dangerous if they are not stored correctly, and just a few minutes on a warm countertop could be enough to give dangerous bacteria like E. coli, salmonella, or Listeria a chance to take root. Refrigerators and freezers protect perishable foods like cold cuts, produce, and leftovers — but only if their internal temperatures are cool enough. Here, we explain why you should monitor the internal temperature of your refrigerator closely. We also provide tips that could help you prevent food contamination and avoid trips to the emergency room.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne illnesses make 48 million Americans sick each year. These are extremely unpleasant and potentially fatal illnesses with debilitating symptoms like excruciating pain, nausea, and uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea. Fortunately, proper food handling and storage greatly reduce the chances of catching one. Salmonella, botulism, and other foodborne illnesses are caused by bacteria, and avoiding them is impossible because they are in the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the soil that our food grows in.
We may not be able to eliminate or avoid bacteria, but we can prevent them from thriving. Bacteria pose a threat when they multiply, and that requires an environment that is both warm and moist. Scientists have noticed that bacteria growth speeds up rapidly when temperatures climb above the freezing point, and they have named the temperature range from 40 degrees Fahrenheit to 140 degrees Fahrenheit the “danger zone.” Some bacteria can double their number in just 20 minutes, so perishable foods should be placed in refrigerators or freezers as quickly as possible.
Pathogenic and Spoilage Bacteria
Many people rely on their noses to determine whether food is still good to eat, but this is a mistake that can have deadly consequences. This is because there are two types of bacteria that grow on food. The bacteria that make produce smell bad and feel slimy are not the ones that make us sick. Spoilage bacteria make food go bad and can grow inside refrigerators, but they do not make people ill. The pathogenic bacteria that cause serious illness do not grow in temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but they multiply rapidly in the danger zone. Pathogenic bacteria do not change the way food looks, smells or tastes, so the nose and taste buds are no defense against them.
What Is a Good Temperature for a Refrigerator?
The temperature a refrigerator should be set at to prevent pathogenic bacteria from growing on food is the subject of fierce debate. The Food and Drug Administration says the ideal refrigerator temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the best freezer temperature is 0 degrees Fahrenheit, but many experts disagree. They say that refrigerator temperature controls are far from perfect, so an internal temperature of 37 or 38 degrees Fahrenheit should be chosen to include a small margin of error.
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Setting a Refrigerator’s Internal Temperature
Adjusting the internal temperature of a refrigerator rarely involves more than turning a dial or pushing a button. If you can’t find the controls when you look inside your refrigerator, you should check your owner’s manual. If you have lost your owner’s manual, you can probably download a replacement from the manufacturer’s website. Some refrigerators have built-in thermometers or digital screens that display the temperature, but many just have snowflake symbols or numbers to denote the chosen setting. If your refrigerator has numbers or symbols, you will have to check the owner’s manual to find out what they mean.
How Cold Is a Refrigerator?
The consequences of allowing the internal temperature of a refrigerator to rise by just a few degrees can be catastrophic, so spending a few dollars on a refrigerator thermometer is a prudent investment. Refrigerator thermometers are engineered to be more accurate at lower temperatures, and they normally have dials rather than bar displays. Look for a thermometer with a display that depicts the “danger zone” in bright red, and either place it on a glass shelf or hang it from a metal shelf. A refrigerator thermometer will continue to work during a power outage, so it can be used to see if the internal temperature rises to a point where food is no longer safe to eat.
A Word About Freezers
Most bacteria can survive but not grow in freezing temperatures, so food stored in a freezer should be safe to eat for months. However, prolonged freezing can negatively affect the flavor, aroma, and taste of food. If you want to keep freezer burn to a minimum, follow the directions on frozen food packaging, and place leftovers in containers with tight lids.
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Food Storage Tips
Keeping your refrigerator and freezer cold enough is only half of the battle against potentially lethal pathogens. Proper food handling is the other half. Here are some tips that could help you to keep your refrigerator efficiently, lower your energy bills and avoid foodborne illnesses:
- Cool food before refrigerating: Large pots of stew or soup should be allowed to cool before being placed in refrigerators. Placing hot items in refrigerators can cause internal temperatures to rise slightly, giving bacteria an opportunity to grow.
- Organize your refrigerator: Keeping refrigerators organized has two main benefits. Arranging food properly optimizes airflow and ensures that every part of the cabinet receives adequate cooling. And knowing where everything is reduces the amount of time it takes to find something. This means the refrigerator door is closed more quickly, and less cool air escapes.
- Check your seals: Many refrigerator cooling problems are caused by worn-out seals rather than faulty compressors, evaporators, or condensers. If your refrigerator seals do not suck slightly just as the door is about to close, they may need to be replaced. When refrigerator doors do not close properly, adding a foot poke to the closing procedure is often an effective short-term solution.
- Verify that your refrigerator is level: When refrigerator cabinets are not as cool as they should be, an open door is often the culprit. If your refrigerator door won’t stay closed, but the seal seems good, you may want to grab a spirit level. Most modern refrigerators have adjustable legs that make leveling them very easy.
- Beware of Listeria: A temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below is cold enough to prevent many dangerous bacteria from growing, but not all of them. Listeria causes a disease that kills Americans each year, and it can grow on food at temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This is why the use-by dates on perishable foods like sandwich meats should be taken seriously.
- Store food quickly: The clock starts to tick as soon as you take food out of a supermarket refrigerator or freezer and place it in your shopping cart. From that moment on, you will have just two hours to get your food into your own refrigerator or freezer. If the air around you is 90 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter, you can cut that time in half. You should also apply the same time rule to leftovers and food you bring home from restaurants in doggy bags.
- Cover your food: The food in your refrigerator will last longer, taste better, and be safer to eat if it is stored properly. Soups, liquids, and large pieces of food should be stored in airtight containers, and smaller items should be placed in sealed storage bags. You should take particular care when storing meat to prevent juice spills.
- Keep your refrigerator clean: Cleaning up refrigerator spills can be a tedious chore, but it is a task that should not be avoided. Hunching over to move bottles and cans out of the way might not be much fun, but dealing with spills quickly is important for food safety. Just make sure that you use an antibacterial cleaner.
- Clear out your refrigerator regularly: You won’t be tempted to eat spoiled food if you have already thrown it away. You should clean out your refrigerator once a week, and you should take no chances with perishable foods like deli meats that are eaten right after being taken out of the refrigerator.
- Use your crispers: Most refrigerators have two crisper compartments that are designed to keep produce fresh. What sets these two storage compartments apart is their humidity levels. As a general rule of thumb, you should place things that will rot in the low-humidity crisper and things that will wilt in the high-humidity crisper.
- Use your refrigerator door sparingly: Modern refrigerators have door bins capable of holding a gallon of milk, but they should not be used to store perishable food. This is because items stored in refrigerator doors are exposed to warm air every time the door is opened.
- Take no chances after a power outage: Your refrigerator’s internal temperature should be just cold enough to prevent pathogenic bacteria from growing, so things can get dangerous pretty quickly if the power goes out. The USDA, FDA, and CDC say that refrigerated food only remains safe to eat for four hours during a power outage, and the agencies urge consumers to take a “when in doubt, throw it out” approach whenever their electricity supplies are interrupted.
- Choose your next refrigerator carefully: When you shop for your next refrigerator, look for a model that has an internal temperature display rather than symbols or numbers. You may also want to consider a fridge with a door-in-door design that provides access to commonly used items without disturbing the main cooling cabinet.
What’s the Worst That Could Happen?
If you eat spoiled food, you will probably know about it fairly quickly. Symptoms are often felt in as little as 20 minutes, and they are often severe even at their onset. A healthy individual will need just time and rest to recover from a mild bout of food poisoning, but those with more serious cases or less robust immune systems may require hospital treatment. When you become sick after eating tainted food, you should seek medical treatment if severe symptoms persist for more than three days or your temperature climbs to over 102 degrees Fahrenheit.
Keeping You Informed
The appliances we buy make our lives easier, and they also keep us healthy and safe. RerigeratorHQ provides consumers with information that saves them time and money, and we publish articles like this one to help you get the most out of your refrigerator and freezer. When you are ready to choose a new refrigerator, you can rely on us for in-depth reviews and useful product roundups. If industry news is what you are looking for, you can check out our press release and recall pages.