Food Storage Nightmares
According to George Carlin, "Leftovers make you feel good twice. First, when you put them away, you feel thrifty and intelligent: 'I'm saving food!' Then a month later when blue hair is growing out of the ham, and you throw it away, you feel really intelligent: 'I'm saving my life!'"
Ancient refrigerator science projects have been inspiring comedy for a long time, but the serious truth is that people get into health trouble because they don't know when to dump the remains of the meal that tasted so good the first time round. How long should you hold onto food? What are the signs that the trash would be more appropriate than the vegetable drawer? And how should you store food once you've opened and/or cooked it?
First of all, it pays to do a regular refrigerator inventory, remembering to check expiration dates. If a food item has lived beyond its life expectancy, it might be a good idea to inspect it for mold. Not only does mold look and taste bad, it can also cause allergic reactions, respiratory problems, and food poisoning. There's even one form of mold that produces really nasty substances called aflatoxins, and these have been linked to liver cancer.1 Nuts and corn are prime sources of aflatoxins, so if the nuts taste off, get rid of them pronto. You can reduce the risk a bit by buying nuts still in the shell.
Do you have to toss every food item that shows a tiny spot of mold? If the food is soft, yes. But mold has a difficult time taking root in hard foods like cheddar cheese and carrots, and so if these foods develop a mold spot, it's usually contained to a small area, at least initially. By cutting out a wide swath of about an inch around the mold-affected area, you can still enjoy the remaining section.2 Other acceptable ‘just-cut-the-mold-out' foods include hard cheeses in general, dense meats like salami, and firm fruits and vegetables.
Soft foods such as breads and baked goods, jellies and jams, beverages, soft cheeses, and non-dense meats, on the other hand, should be tossed at the first indication of mold. Why? An article in the New York Times quotes USDA spokesperson Marianne H. Gravely as saying that mold "has long threadlike roots that invade the food and you might not be able to tell how far it's gone [by the time it's visible to the eye]." Even if the mold itself hasn't spread beyond one small spot, it probably has taken root.
The USDA website further explains: "You only see part of the mold on the surface of food -- gray fur on forgotten bologna, fuzzy green dots on bread, white dust on Cheddar, coin-size velvety circles on fruits, and furry growth on the surface of jellies. When a food shows heavy mold growth, "root" threads have invaded it deeply."3
That's why it's not a good idea to taste food to see if it's still good. All might look well on the once edible surface, but if the food has been around too long, it could already be hosting a pathogen party. That's also why it's especially not wise to sniff food that you suspect is going moldy. The mold spores can travel into your respiratory system and wreak havoc.
It's important to remember that the expiration date on the food package is just a guideline, and it only applies to the "sell-by" date. How long the food actually lasts once you open the wrapper depends on how you rewrap it after opening, how much time it spends out of the refrigerator, how long it was on the shelf before you bought it, and the storage temperature.
In case you're like most of us who have forgotten food storage guidelines, here's a quick reminder. Soft cheeses like brie are good for about a week, although cottage cheese can go a lot longer. Hard cheeses like cheddar last about five weeks, and parmesan can go for 10 months. Most cooked leftovers, about three to four days, maximum. Some sources recommend tossing after 48 hours. Milk, one week; eggs, three weeks.4 Ground meats and poultry keep about two days; other meats about four days.5
To be safe, don't let your cooked food cool before putting it in the fridge. Any time spent sitting at room temperature invites pathogens to settle in. On the other hand, if the food is still hot and you want to hustle into the fridge, don't store it in plastic as you'll release whatever toxins the plastic contains into the food if you do. Instead, use glass storage containers.
- 1. Rabin, Roni Caryn. "Ask Well: Is it Safe to Eat Moldy Bread?" 29 October 2015. New York Times. 30 October 2015. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/29/ask-well-is-it-safe-to-eat-moldy-bread
- 2. "Mold and Cheese: The Good and the Unsafe." Home & Family. 30 October 2015. http://www.homefamily.net/mold-and-cheese-the-good-and-the-unsafe/
- 3. "Molds on Food: Are They Dangerous?" United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service. 30 October 2015. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/a87cdc2c-6ddd-49f0-bd1f-393086742e68/Molds_on_Food.pdf?MOD=AJPERES
- 4. http://www.eatright.org/resource/homefoodsafety/safety-tips/food/keep-your-dairy-and-egg-products-safe
- 5. http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html