Snacking on pizza that’s been sitting on the counter for hours can make you sick. Resist the temptation to finish off foods that you failed to put away after mealtime, says Vicky Cora, GI Nutrition Support Dietitian.
“Food-borne illnesses are caused by different bacteria: salmonella in chicken and poultry, E. coli in vegetables and beef, and trichinosis in pork. The bacteria can tend to survive and multiply in the danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees or when food is left out more than two hours,” Ms. Cora says.
“Depending on your immunity, if you eat foods that are spoiled, you can be really ill, requiring hospitalization, or you can fight it off. Very often, you have a little stomachache after lunch or in the evening, and it’s food-borne illness you didn’t even know you had,” Ms. Cora explains.
Symptoms of food-borne illness include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. Millions of cases of food-borne illness occur each year and can often be prevented with proper food storage.
Here, Ms. Cora offers some guidelines for saving your leftovers safely.
“One of the most important rules is the Two-Hour Rule. Don’t leave food out for more than two hours. If you’ve left it out and forgotten about it—and it’s been longer than two hours—throw it away. Bacteria have grown. It’s too late,” Ms. Cora cautions.
Not only is it important that you place cooked foods into the refrigerator within two hours, but your refrigerator also needs to be very cold. Because bacteria reproduce quickly between 40 and 140 degrees, sometimes doubling in 20 minutes, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends that your refrigerator be set below 40 degrees to prevent bacteria from growing.
Another area of concern, Ms. Cora says, is in cooling hot foods before they’re put away. Often people will leave them on the counter to cool. Ms. Cora says that’s an unsafe plan. “Say, for example, you have a large pot of hot soup. To cool it down correctly, divide it into smaller containers so it cools down evenly and then place those in the fridge,” Ms. Cora suggests.
Ms. Cora advises, however, that it’s better to store excess food in the freezer than in the refrigerator. Food can be stored a long time in the freezer, whereas “you should save most food for only two days in the refrigerator. If you’ve left it longer than two days in the fridge, throw it away. Bacteria can grow in the fridge, too. There’s risk of bacteria even with the lower temperature over time. You may as well freeze it.”
The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service says freezing at 0 degrees keeps food safe indefinitely; however, some loss of quality in flavor or texture may occur with long freezing times.
Defrosting foods also causes problems. “Defrosting on the counter is bad. You’ll have part of the food still frozen on the inside, while the outside will be room temperature and spoiled. Instead, defrost food in the fridge or the microwave or under running water,” Ms. Cora recommends.
“The most important thing of all, of course, is to wash your hands well,” Ms. Cora advises. “Under warm water, use soap, lather up, and dry with paper towels. That way, if something is contaminated, you are not spreading the bacteria to other food items.”
So if you’re hungry for a midnight snack, be safe and reach into the fridge for a slice of pizza that’s been properly cooled down, packed up and put away.