October 9, 2001, Chandigarh, India
food safely stored in fridge and free from bacteria?
food safely stored in fridge and
IS the food that you have stored in your fridge safe for eating? We have been using the refrigerator (more commonly known as fridge) in our houses for several decades now and new models with additional fancy features are entering the market daily from double-doors to noiseless frost-free ones. We are also hearing about that futuristic fridge that would automatically assess your needs and order milk, food products, etc online!
The fridge is extensively used for keeping fresh vegetables, fruit, raw meat and poultry product. However, the fridge also also tends to give us a false sense of security. We tend to think that anything kept in the fridge will always remain fresh.
Unfortunately, this is not true. Every food article needing preservation in the fridge or deep refrigeration in the freezer has a life. This means that after some time, the food becomes unfit for consumption. If the food items are not handled properly at the time of keeping them inside or after taking them out, bacteria may grow that can cause food poisoning.
Users, sometimes fail is utilising this ‘machine’ properly and, as a result, food turns toxic. Out of sheer ignorance, we allow the bacteria to breed and make our fridge an unsafe place to store food.
Let us see how we can enhance the effectiveness of our fridge and ensure that what we are storing inside remains healthy.
Check the temperature
We are all aware that the temperature inside the fridge has to be cold so that the food is not spoilt. But how cold should the inside of the fridge be? It is a faulty assumption that the colder the fridge, the better it is for the items kept inside and they can be kept for long without getting stale. We do not know that if the temperature is too cold, the food will partially freeze. You may not realise this from the texture, but freezing prevents the food from being cooked properly. This allows bacteria that cause food poisoning to survive, since only fully and properly cooked food can ensure elimination of all bacteria.
If the fridge is not cold enough, then too bacteria can thrive in it. It is, therefore, important that the temperature inside the fridge is set properly. A thermostat knob is available for this purpose in the fridge and it normally ranges from 0 to 9. The correct temperature is achieved by the turn of the knob or you can install a thermometer inside. The thermometer should be at a place from where it can be easily seen and is also the coldest, preferably near the top and middle shelves (frost-free fridge is stated to have the same temperature everywhere). The ideal temperature at the coldest part should be between 0°C and 5°C. Leave the thermometer overnight to let it settle to the right temperature then read it quickly without picking it up. You may have to repeat the exercise once or twice to adjust to the required temperature settings.
Stack items properly
While stacking items in your fridge, make sure that it not packed to full. This stops proper circulation of cold air, thus losing effectiveness. Food will remain good if the temperature inside is kept constant. This is possible only if the fridge is kept closed all the time. But this obviously does not happen. Every few minutes, we have to open the fridge to take out something or the other. With large kitchens, the fridge is now being accommodated in the kitchen itself, so the frequency of opening it has gone up. We also tend to leave the fridge-door open while we pour milk for tea or do other odd jobs. This reduces the chilliness of the fridge as the cold air escapes, resulting in the internal warming up of the fridge. Apart from adding to your electricity bills, the fridge’s compressor has to work extra hard to restart and to maintain the required temperature. So take out whatever items you want and shut the door as rapidly as possible.
You should plan all the things to be taken out and remove them in one go. Another reason for not being able to close the door immediately is that both our hands are full of items being taken out and we have to go back to shut it. It is a pity that India does not make a fridge that can be opened with a foot pedal. Some imported fridges have this feature which is a boon to the housewife.
One more reason for the fall in temperature is putting warm cooked food and hot milk in the fridge. The steam immediately warms up the cold air inside and the thermostat has to restart. The sudden change — from hot to cold — can also spoil the food particles. The food to be placed inside should first be allowed to properly cool down.
Food items have their life
Most food items have a short fridge life. The life is two days for milk, cream or cooked food and half-a-day for fish. For cheese, the thumb rule is that as long as it looks all right (normally, not more than a few days), use it. Don’t eat it once it is discoloured. Things that require refrigeration, e.g. tinned food, cheese, etc. should not be stored without refrigeration for more than one-and-a-half hours. Within this time, the item should be back in your fridge after having bought from the market. Very few items can be kept for more than five days in a fridge. Remember that refrigeration doesn’t really kill bacteria and some of them continue to breed in the fridge.
In the freezer
Freezing also doesn’t kill all the bacteria, yet the freezer is a safer place than the fridge. Here the temperature plays a crucial role. It should be maintained below -18°C. One way to sustain the temperature is to open it as infrequently as possible, once you set the temperature. The second is to pack the freezer as full as possible to keep the temperature down.
All meat items in the freezer should be kept in plastic bags. Meat taken out from the freezer should be defrosted thoroughly and properly before cooking. Don’t start cooking the meat immediately after taking it out from the freezer. It should be defrosted properly and gradually. The best way is to keep it in a container in the lowest shelf of the fridge. Most of us defreeze it by keeping it on the normal, warm kitchen shelf or simply putting it under running tap water in the sink. Sudden warmth makes the bacteria reproduce. Check in advance as to how long it will take to defrost, so that you are not half way into cooking and meat is still frozen in the middle. After all, the heat will defreeze it any way, is our simple contention. Some of us also use microwaves to defreeze meat to save time, but it also partially cooks the food. If you do use the microwave, make sure there is no ice left inside. Also, make sure that food that is thawed, but has not been cooked, is not deep-frozen again and should be kept in the fridge to be consumed, possibly the same day.
Meat needs special care
Meat has to be kept especially carefully in the fridge since bacteria from raw (uncooked) meat can contaminate other food. It should be kept away from the other ready-to-eat food. Uncooked food also risks being infected from meat and bacteria may not be eliminated in cooking. All cooked food should be stored on the upper shelves of the fridge, with meat separated from everything else at the bottom where it can’t drip into anything. Any meat product that was cut from a bulk in the shop should be consumed within two days at the most.
Poultry meat, such as broiler, etc shouldn’t be kept in the fridge for more than a day and consumed thereafter. If you are not going to cook it within this time, better buy a frozen one and put it in the freezer straightaway.
Nutritionists advise to leave eggs in a cool place. The space provided in the door of the fridge seems to be the right place and convenient too. However, too much dampness in a fridge could dissolve the shell’s protective coating and they can get too cold to be cooked.
Most fresh fruit and vegetables should be kept in the fridge but any cut and damaged portion should be discarded before placing inside. Vegetables should be stored without being washed or cut, because they starts losing vitamins after peeling. If you bought vegetables in plastic bags, open them up and keep without the bag. Root vegetables and unripe fruit should not be kept in the fridge. Bananas turn black fast in a fridge.
Don’t keep leftovers of custard, gravy or anything else that has been made up from a powder containing meat, eggs, rice or dairy products. These ingredients are most likely to harbour food-poisoning bacteria which starts multiplying fast when you add water and warmth. All containers inside the fridge should be covered with a lid.
Ideally, we should defrost the fridge
every week, discarding anything that’s been there for a long time and
beyond its expiry period. At least every 15-20 days, the fridge needs to
be emptied and cleaned with two teaspoons of soda bicarbonate in about a
litre of hot water. Any spills in the fridge should be mopped up at once
to avoid growth of bacteria. Periodically, check the rubber linings to
ensure that no cockroaches slip inside and infest your food.
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