Food safety in the refrigerator and freezer

Keeping food in the refrigerator or freezer is a great way to extend its shelf life. But it's important to follow some basic guidelines for safe cold storage.

Every year about 48 million people in the United States get sick from eating food that contains unhealthy bacteria. As many as 3,000 of these people die from the bacteria, viruses or parasites they come across in food not prepared or stored properly, according to the National Institutes of Health.

To help ensure correct food storage in the refrigerator and freezer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration offer these tips:

Watch the temperature. Your refrigerator needs to be kept at or below 40 degrees. A freezer needs to be at 0 degrees.

Experts recommend buying an appliance thermometer to verify the actual temperature in the refrigerator and freezer.

Temperature is important because if cold food gets above 40 degrees it enters a danger zone, according to the USDA. This zone, between 41 and 140 degrees, is where bacteria grow most rapidly.

Cool food quickly. Keeping food cold slows the growth of bacteria, which can double every 20 to 30 minutes at temperatures above 40 degrees. That's why it's important to chill food quickly and keep it cold. Follow these guidelines:

  • Refrigerate or freeze foods like meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, and cut vegetables and fruits within two hours of buying or preparing them.
  • Put leftovers in the fridge or freezer within two hours of serving them—and within one hour if the temperature outside is 90 degrees or higher.
  • If you have a large amount of something to store—like a pot of soup or a whole chicken—separate it into small containers or wrap it in small packages. Storing foods in smaller quantities helps them reach a safe temperature more quickly.
  • Freeze food as fast as possible to maintain its quality—a piece of food 2 inches thick should freeze completely in two hours. Don't stack foods to be frozen, but spread them out in one layer on different shelves to speed the freezing process.

Organize carefully. Where you store things in the fridge can matter. For example, the temperature is usually stable in the interior of the fridge, but may not be stable in the door. Because of that, you shouldn't store perishable foods such as eggs in the refrigerator door.

You also don't want to put too much food in your fridge. Cold air needs to be able to move around to keep food at the proper temperature.

Know how long things can stay safe. Refrigeration can keep lots of foods safe for weeks. Some foods can last in the freezer for months.

The chart below lists some commonly eaten foods and the amount of time you can store them in a refrigerator or freezer.

 

Product   Refrigerator (40°F) Freezer (0°F)
Eggs Fresh, in shell 3 to 5 weeks Don't freeze
  Raw yolks, whites 2 to 4 days 1 year
  Hard cooked 1 week Don't freeze well
Mayonnaise Commercial, refrigerate after opening 2 months Doesn't freeze
Deli and vacuum-packed products Store-prepared (or homemade) egg,
chicken, tuna, macaroni salads
3 to 5 days Don't freeze well
Luncheon meats Opened package
Unopened package
3 to 5 days
2 weeks
1 to 2 months
1 to 2 months
Hamburger and other ground meats Ground beef, turkey, veal and lamb 1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months
Fresh beef, veal and lamb Steaks, chops and roasts 3 to 5 days 4 to 12 months
Soup and stews Vegetable or meat added 3 to 4 days 2 to 3 months
Meat leftovers Cooked meat and meat casseroles 3 to 4 days 2 to 3 months
Fresh poultry Chicken or turkey, whole
Chicken or turkey, pieces
1 to 2 days
1 to 2 days
1 year
9 months
Cooked poultry Fried chicken or
plain pieces
3 to 4 days 2 to 6 months
Dairy Butter
Margarine
Milk
Yogurt
1 to 2 months
6 months
7 days
7 to 14 days
6 to 9 months
12 months
3 months
1 to 2 months
Seafood Lean fish (cod, flounder, haddock, sole, etc.)
Fatty fish (bluefish, mackerel, salmon, etc.)
Cooked fish
1 to 2 days
1 to 2 days
3 to 4 days            
6 to 8 months  
2 to 3 months
4 to 6 months

reviewed 1/14/2020

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