Leftovers in a refrigerator with blank tape for copy.In observance of Food Safety Education Month, we have been covering the four keys to food safety, which are Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill. This week, we will learn more about the final key: Chill.

Keeping food at the right temperature prevents bacteria from rapidly multiplying in food and making us sick . Most foodborne illness-causing bacteria grow best between 41F and 135F, so this temperature range is dubbed the “danger zone.” Keep foods out of the danger zone to ensure they are safe to eat. The following are the top tips for preventing foodborne illness by keeping food at a safe temperature:

  • Keep your refrigerator temperature between 32*F and 40*F. An appliance thermometer that hangs in your refrigerator is the best way to tell the temperature inside.
  • Don’t heavily stack and overcrowd food in your refrigerator. To keep foods cold, air must be able to circulate in the refrigerator. If you overcrowd or heavily stack food, cold air may not be able to reach it, causing your food to be in the danger zone.
  • Refrigerate foods promptly. Put groceries away as soon as you get home (remember to separate in your refrigerator!). After cooking food, a good rule of thumb is to refrigerate it within one hour.
  • Cool foods properly. Cooking kills most pathogens, but some bacterial cells have hard coatings like armor that allow them to survive. If food is in the danger zone for too long, these bacteria can multiply and make you and your family sick even if you reheat the food before eating it. If a larger amount of food needs to be cooled in the refrigerator, such as a big pot of soup, separate it into smaller containers and leave the containers uncovered on the top shelf of your refrigerator until the food has an internal temperature of 41*F or lower. Once the food is cold, cover the containers to prevent contamination.
  • Thaw foods properly. Never leave food out on the counter to thaw it. Instead, thaw safely in the refrigerator, in the microwave, or in cold, running water.
  • Throw foods out when necessary. Spoilage bacteria make it easy to tell if a food is no longer good by the smell and taste they cause in food, but did you know that foodborne illness bacteria do not cause a change in the smell or taste of a food? If you’re not sure whether a food was refrigerated promptly or properly, don’t take a chance of getting a foodborne illness: when in doubt, throw it out!
  • Store foods for a safe amount of time. Check out this chart showing how long foods can safely be stored in your refrigerator.

For year-round food safety information, check out our Food Safety and Environmental Services webpage here.