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Consumers' Refrigerators: a Danger Zone

Research shows that only 20 percent of consumers use thermometers, and a mere 30 percent are aware that they should have them in their refrigerators.

Several experts addressed home-based food safety issues in “Consumers’ Refrigerators: A Danger Zone” Monday at the Institute of Food Technologists’ Annual Meeting and Food Expo in New Orleans.

“You don’t have to go to a restaurant or to a party to get sick,” said Fur-Chin Chen, Ph.D., a microbiologist at the University of Tennessee. He found a variety of pathogens in a quarter of the refrigerators he inspected during a recent study. Vegetable bins were the most contaminated.

Armed with such information, your home refrigerator can slow you down with more than a stomach ache if you fail to keep your food cold or to eat and store ready-to-eat foods by recommended dates.

“There is a disconnect between food safety practices and people’s confidence in preparing foods safely. It’s very hard to change behaviors,” said Danielle Schor, R.D., and a senior vice president of the food safety division of the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a nonprofit organization that addresses consumer education.

IFIC has taken up issue of safe-refrigeration cause with a customized campaign. The campaign’s main message to consumers is to purchase thermometers, keep refrigerator temperatures at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, and monitor several times a day.

Aside from throwing out ready-to-eat foods by package storage dates, refrigerators need a weekly cleaning, a practice that consumers avoid. One study shows that approximately 50 percent of consumers clean their refrigerators once a month. But because consumers fail to clean thoroughly, scientists say that figure is likely exaggerated.

The best regime is to clean your refrigerator (which shouldn’t be more than 10 years old) inside and out with dish soap once a week. Allow the shelves and drawers to air dry, said Sandria Godwin, Ph.D., R.D., with Tennessee State University’s Family and Consumer Sciences.

Unexpectedly, as education and income increases, risky food-handling practices increase as well, said Sheryl C. Cates, Ph.D., at RTI International in Triangle Park, N.C. Interestingly enough, panelists couldn’t explain this phenomenon.

According to Godwin, many of us, well educated or not, think we know more than we do.

Dani Schor, R.D., Food Safety senior vice president for International Food Information Council, 202-296-6540;
Sandria L. Godwin, PhD, R.D., Tennessee State University, 615-963-5619,
Sheryl C. Cates, Research Policy Analyst at RTI International, Triangle Park, NC. 919-541-6810,

Fur-Chi Chen, PhD, University of Tennessee, 615-963-5410;

About IFT
Founded in 1939, and with world headquarters in Chicago, Illinois, USA, the Institute of Food Technologists is a not-for-profit international scientific society with 22,000 members working in food science and technology and related professions in industry, academia and government. As the society for food science and technology, IFT brings sound science to the public discussion of food issues. For more on IFT, visit © 2008 Institute of Food Technologists

Jeannie Houchins | newswise
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