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This fact sheet helps you avoid problems when buying and storing food.
Advertising claims about the health giving properties of a food are tightly controlled by regulations. Only certain claims are permitted. The best way to ensure your family is being properly nourished is to plan meals sensibly using the Australian Dietary Guidelines and a variety of foods. Advice on this aspect of family care is freely available at Nutrition Australia .
Weekly specials in food lines can be slow moving items nearing the end of their acceptable storage life. Several weeks of storage in the home may be possible with stable items such as canned goods, but storage for many months without inspection should be avoided.
Avoid overbuying, particularly perishable foods, but also so-called long-life foods such as canned and dehydrated items. The convenience and economy of quantity buying is lost if some of the food deteriorates or spoils and you have to throw it out.
Refrigeration can substantially reduce the rate at which food will deteriorate. Low temperatures slow down the growth of micro-organisms and the rate of chemical changes in food.
The temperature in a frost-free refrigerator is fairly even. However in a moist air refrigerator the coolest part of the refrigerator is near the coils.
Thermometers made especially for refrigerators and freezers are available from some department stores and are a worthwhile investment.
Uncooked minced meat, liver, kidneys, poultry and seafoods need careful storage because they always carry large numbers of spoilage and possibly food poisoning micro-organisms. Some of these micro-organisms can grow even at refrigeration temperatures, so always store these foods in the coldest part of the refrigerator as close as possible to 0 °C.
The longest recommended storage time is three days. To kill any food poisoning bacteria which may be present, always cook minced meat thoroughly to a temperature above 75 °C.
Wrapped fresh meat can be kept safely for up to three days and unwrapped fresh meat up to five days at cold temperatures from 0 °C to 3 °C.
Whole red meats (e.g. leg of lamb) and cured meats have a longer storage life, and unwrapped meats last longer than wrapped meats.
Wrapped meat maintains its original high water content and quality but surface growth of micro-organisms is encouraged and the meat becomes slimy after about three days and an 'off' odour can become apparent. The safe thing to do then is to throw it out.
Unwrapped meat keeps longer—fresh meat for up to five days and cured meat for up to three weeks at 0 °C to 3 °C. The meat surface dries out. This retards microbial growth but causes undesirable colour changes and loss of flavour. However, this is preferable to meat going off because it is wrapped. But be sure to expose all surfaces in turn.
Throw out food which is going off because putting it in a colder part of the refrigerator will not stop it deteriorating further. It can taint other food.
Store food you want to keep for a long time, or items like seafoods which are quite susceptible to spoilage, in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Cover all cooked foods and store them on a shelf above uncooked goods. This minimises the risk of food poisoning organisms being transferred from uncooked to cooked foods through drip.
Foods with strong odours, such as seafoods and some cheeses, should be wrapped, and you should avoid storing them for long periods near food such as milk and cream which are susceptible to tainting.
Some flexible films are effective barriers to the transmission of odours but they are not readily available to consumers. The common cling wrap polyethylene films are not very effective, but they are useful in the short term and stop spillages. Closed glass or plastic containers are preferable.
Freezing food and holding it at a very low temperature, around -18 °C, almost completely stops deterioration. Thawing or even a rise in temperature without thawing stimulates chemical and microbiological activity and spoilage may occur.
Remember, frozen foods should be put in the freezer section of the refrigerator (or the freezer) as soon as you get home from the shop.
Long-term storage of commercially frozen foods in the home with an ordinary refrigerator is hard to justify. It is better to buy frozen foods as required because some home freezers do not hold food at a sufficiently low temperature to maintain high quality over a long period. Small quantities of bought food can, however, be held frozen for a few weeks at temperatures of between -15 °C and -12 °C without serious loss of quality.
People who freeze their own garden produce are in a somewhat different position as they have full knowledge of the storage history of the frozen product.
Some frozen foods, particularly vegetables, should be used direct from the frozen state. Frozen vegetables usually have been blanched before freezing and need only be lightly cooked before serving.
Large cuts of frozen meat and poultry need to be thawed before use. This should be done in the refrigerator at a temperature below 4 °C to stop the growth of food poisoning bacteria. At least 24 to 48 hours in the refrigerator is usually required to thaw reasonably sized portions of foods such as whole chickens or rolled roasts. Special care is necessary when thawing and cooking turkeys or large pieces of meat—more than 3 kg.
If frozen meat has to be used at short notice it should still be thawed before cooking. This can be done under cool running water without unwrapping the meat or in a microwave oven. However, if you have to cook the meat before it has completely thawed, allow extra cooking time and ensure (by using a good meat thermometer) that the temperature in the middle of the joint has reached 71 °C.
Smaller cuts of meat such as steaks and chops can be fried or grilled direct from the frozen state.
Generally speaking, thawed food should not be refrozen. It can be stored safely in the chilling section of the refrigerator for up to 48 hours if it has been thawed properly under controlled conditions in the refrigerator.
Warning: It is bad practice to thaw meat, poultry or fish out of the refrigerator. If this has been done it should never be put back into the refrigerator for use later. If it cannot be cooked immediately it should be thrown away because there has been an opportunity for food poisoning organisms to grow.
Dehydrated foods do not readily go bad while dry, but they are deteriorating slowly all the time, particularly once the packets are open to the air.
Dehydration inhibits the growth of microbes by removing water but it does not make foods sterile and these foods may carry a high level of contaminating micro-organisms which become active again in the presence of water.
Rehydrated dried foods—those to which water has been added—need to be treated as highly perishable and kept in the refrigerator.
Store in a cool place away from obvious sources of heat such as a stove or direct sunlight. Dried foods will keep in an unopened container for about six months at 21°—24 °C.
Inspect regularly for insect infestation as this is a constant problem.
If possible store opened packages or dried fruits in the refrigerator to maintain quality for a longer period.
Savoury dips made from dehydrated ingredients should be kept in the refrigerator. Once the powder is combined with other moist ingredients conditions are right for the growth of bacteria.
Stocks, soups, sauces and gravies made from dehydrated ingredients should also be kept in the refrigerator.
Most canned foods have been sterilised during processing, which means any contaminating organisms originally present on the food have been destroyed and the cans need only be stored in a cool place. But watch for swollen or leaking cans. This indicates some failure in processing and the contents of the can should not be tasted. Any doubtful can should be reported to the manufacturer to alert them that other cans may be in a similar condition.
Any products, such as canned meats and fish, which are marked `Store below 4° C' must be stored in the refrigerator. The contents have not been fully sterilised because prolonged heating adversely affects the texture. All labels should be read carefully before the food is stored.
Adopt the same storage precautions for the contents of a can as you would for fresh food of the same kind. This is because contamination is possible as soon as the can is opened and some of the contents removed.
Throw out the contents of any can which have any unusual odour. Some foods may be stored in the can in the refrigerator and partly used cans should be covered with plastic. However, there are some preserved foods which do not store well in cans. Highly acid or salted foods such as fruit juices or tomato products do attack tinplate in the presence of air and they should be transferred to a glass or plastic container before refrigerating.
Unopened canned foods can be stored at 21 °C to 24 °C for at least 12 months.
Many canned foods will keep longer but because of uncertainty as to the true age of the food a 12-month maximum should be set.
Canned rhubarb, fruit juices, soft drinks and some baby foods are exceptions and have a maximum storage life of about six months.
Most cases of food poisoning are the result of eating food left to stand, cooked or uncooked, at temperatures that permit bacteria to grow, particularly those that can cause food poisoning.
Be aware that these bacteria are present naturally in or on most foods, including meat, fish, poultry, rice and vegetables. As well, many people carry potentially harmful bacteria on face, arms, hands and other parts of the body.
If, through carelessness, these organisms are transferred to a food which will support their growth such as ready-to-eat foods, and these foods are then held at a temperature warm enough to allow the organisms to grow, we have a potentially dangerous situation. Transferring bacteria from one food to another, particularly uncooked to cooked, by careless handling may be equally dangerous.
The temperature at which a food is kept for any time is extremely important.
Between 4 ° and 60 °C is the temperature danger zone because this is the temperature range in which food poisoning bacteria may grow.
It is easy to reduce the risk of food poisoning by keeping the time food spends in the temperature danger zone of rapid microbial growth as short as possible.
Remember: the shorter the time foods, particularly cooked foods, spend between 4 °C and 60 °C the less are the chances of food poisoning.
If food is to be served hot after cooking it should be kept above 60 °C.
If the food is not to be eaten immediately after cooking, it should be cooled in the refrigerator to below 4 °C.
Reheating should ensure that the centre of the food reaches 75 °C.
The same precaution should be taken with fried and barbecued meats, particularly chicken bought from take-away food shops. If this type of food is not to be eaten straight away, it should be kept either below 4 °C or above 60 °C, to avoid growth of any harmful bacteria.
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Last updated: Last updated: 26 February 2015
Printed from: Handling food in the home (http://csiroaucd2-cdc.it.csiro.au/en/Research/Health/Food-safety/Food-handling)