Why Is Proper Food Storage and Refrigeration Very Important

Today we have access to all kinds of different food. There is nothing better than this, but there is one problem here.

Food needs to be stored properly.

Without proper storage, things can get out of hand pretty quickly.

food in the container inside of Refrigerator

Why are proper food storage and refrigeration important? Proper food storage and refrigeration are important because it slows and limits bacterial growth. This ensures that the food is going to be safe for human consumption. Poor food storage and refrigeration practices can pose a severe health hazard. Food that has not been stored and refrigerated properly can spoil and cause foodborne illness.

If you want to find out more about proper food storage and refrigeration, read on. Below I share with you the good, the bad, and the ugly of food storage and why it is important.

What Happens When Food Is Not Stored and Refrigerated Properly?

To better understand why proper storage and refrigeration of food are important to let us first take a look at what exactly happens when food is not stored or refrigerated.

a girl looking at spoiled chips

Once food has been produced, it starts to spoil. The spoiling process takes different amounts of time and varies depending on the different types of food and storage conditions. Generally speaking, all food spoils. Conversely, there are some exceptions like raw honey, for example, which is known never to spoil.

The process of food deterioration and breaking down with time is completely normal. This process is caused by different microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, mold, enzymes, and yeast.

The speed of their growth and multiplication is governed by a number of factors like humidity, oxygen, light, temperature, pH of food, food composition, and more.

These microorganisms start consuming any food that they come in contact with. All they need to thrive and multiply is a food source and water.

These microorganisms are found everywhere and can easily contaminate our food when it is not stored properly.

As the bacteria consume the food and multiplies, it will produce waste products and acids. These waste products are responsible for the foul smell and taste associated with spoiling food.

The signs of food spoilage are:

  • Unpleasant smells;
  • Color changes and discoloration;
  • Slime formation;
  • Changes in the texture of the food; and
  • Unpleasant, stale, or rancid taste.

There are three main types of food spoilage:

  • Fermentation;
  • Rancidity; and
  • Putrefaction.
spoiled strawberry in the plastic container

Also, food that has not been stored properly can get infested by bugs and insects or even eaten by rats and other animals. These rodents, larvae, insects, and bugs are not just unpleasant but can also spread disease.

This makes food unsanitary and not suitable for human consumption.

And lastly, not storing food correctly means that the expiration dates will not be valid anymore. The expiration dates usually give us how long the food will retain its best nutrient and flavor qualities when stored properly.

So why do we need to store food? We need to store food because this will keep it suitable for human consumption for longer periods of time. We need to store it in appropriate containers, and places as this will lower the rates at which it spoils. Storing food will limit and reduce the risk of contamination and exposure to insects, bacteria, rodents, animals, and dust.

As you now know, inadequate food storage results in higher chances of food spoiling, which results in higher food waste.

The numbers are truly staggering. In the U.S. alone, more than 60,000,000 tonnes of food waste is thrown out each year. Unfortunately, the vast majority of this food waste ends up in landfills. It has been discovered that food waste can be incredibly bad for the environment.

Is Food That Has Not Been Stored and Refrigerated Properly Dangerous to Us?

Food that has not been stored or refrigerated properly will start to spoil as a result of the various microorganisms which grow on or in it.

a man smelling spoiled vegetables

Not all microorganisms and bacteria that will start multiplying on your food are necessarily going to be bad. These bacteria can be categorized into three main categories:

  • Spoilage bacteria: Spoilage microorganisms are the main reason why food deteriorates and breaks down. Some spoilage microorganisms may or may not be dangerous.
  • Beneficial bacteria: These microorganisms are not necessarily going to be bad for us or ruin the qualities of our food. For example, cheese and yogurt are all made with beneficial bacteria.
  • Pathogenic bacteria: some microorganisms can be pathogenic. Pathogenic bacteria pose a serious health hazard and should not be consumed.

For example, some pathogenic microorganisms found in food are:

  • Clostridium perfringens – A well-known pathogenic bacteria that are responsible for spoilage of meat;
  • Bacillus cereus – This is another pathogenic bacteria that are associated with spoilage of milk and cream;
  • Salmonella;
  • Staphylococcus aureus;
  • Campylobacter; and more

The stomach acidity can kill some but not all pathogenic bacteria. However, some bacteria can reach the small intestines where it can start to multiply and spread. And this can cause food poisoning.

Some common spoilage bacteria are:

  • Bacillus;
  • Acetobacter spp;
  • Alcaligenes spp;
  • Clostridium; and
  • Erwinia spp.

And some common spoilage fungi are:

  • Penicillium;
  • Botrytis;
  • Rhizopus;
  • Alternaria; and
  • Aspergillus.

What Is Proper Food Storage and Refrigeration?

By storing and refrigerating food properly, we can slow down and prevent food from spoiling as fast.

Proper storage and refrigeration are not going to stop the process of spoiling or deterioration, though. Eventually, almost all the food goes bad.

different size of glass jar to store some food

Proper food storage requires several different criteria to be met.

  • First, the food should be stored in such a way as to prevent any contact with outside air, moisture, humidity, light, and gasses; and
  • Secondly, food should be stored in proper food grade containers in favorable temperatures that do not fluctuate; and
  • Lastly, the food should be protected against insects, bugs, rodents, and animals.

Depending on the extent to which these criteria are met, you will be able to store food for different periods of time.

For example, a lot of people use Mylar bags for food storage. The reason why they use Mylar bags for food storage is that they provide very good protection and sealing. With a Mylar bag, you can store dry foods for up to and in excess of 30 years.

A good rule of the thumb is to follow the 2-hour / 4-hour rule.

The 2-hour / 4-hour rule is a general guideline that is used to help easily determine when different types of food, that have been kept at temperatures in the danger zone, can potentially become hazardous.

According to the 2-hour / 4-hour rule:

  • Foods that have stayed in the temperature danger zone up to 2 hours are safe for consumption and refrigeration.
  • Foods that have stayed in the temperature danger zone between 2 to 4 hours are generally considered safe for human consumption.
  • And foods that have stayed in the temperature danger zone for more than 4 hours should not be consumed.

Proper storage also involves keeping the foods in properly sealed containers. Broken packages, dented, cracked, and peeling containers can all cause improper protection and sealing, which can lead to faster spoilage.

What Are the Different Types of Storage?

Dry Storage

First, let us talk about the regular long-term storage of dry foods like legumes, beans, grains, pasta, white rice, flour, etc.

dried spices stored in the glass jar

Storing dry foods can be done without refrigeration. Usually, dry foods, especially large quantities of it, do not need to stay at very low temperatures. This is why it can be kept at room temperatures in different areas of your home.

Properly stored, these foods can be kept for long periods of time in some instances up to 40 years.

Cold Storage

This is suitable for foods that need to be kept at low temperatures, usually 40 °F or below (5C). This represents most foods that we hold in our refrigerators. It is best used for perishable food that is consumed daily, like dairy products, meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, cooked food, and leftovers.

Frozen Storage

Frozen storage is suitable for foods that need to stay at 0°F (-15C) or below. Freezing food usually prevents the rate of spoilage significantly. Frequently meats, fish, and poultry are kept frozen.

With that being said, food should not be kept frozen forever. According to the information provided by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services:

  • Frozen poultry should be consumed within 9 to 12 months;
  • Frozen fresh meat should be consumed within 4 to 12 months;
  • Frozen ground meats should be consumed within 3 to 4 months;

Also, frozen vegetables can be stored in a freezer for up to 8 to 10 months.

What Are the Different Types of Food Preservation?

There are three main types of food preservation.

Dry Food Preservation

Dry food preservation is the most basic and straightforward method for keeping food. This involves packing dry foods in appropriate containers and storing them in a suitable environment.

dry tomato in the glass jar

Dehydrated and Freeze-Dried Food Preservation

Dehydrating food is an excellent way to store food long term as it does not spoil quickly. Dried food could last from 1 to 20 years, depending on the storage conditions.

Microorganisms require a number of different conditions to be met for them to spread and multiply like moisture, appropriate temperature, and oxygen.

By dehydrating the food, we remove the moisture in foods, thus removing one of the necessary elements for bacterial growth.

Dehydration is easy to achieve with a dehydrator. But food can also be dehydrated with a regular oven.

Freeze-dried food preservation is an alternative method of food storage where the food is frozen and then dried. But this is a more expensive method for food preservation that is not going to be available to everyone.

The LRP rations used by the U.S. Army in the 1960s to 1970s were freeze-dried.

Canned Food Preservation

Canned food is easy to obtain as it is sold in almost every grocery store. Canning has been used for many years as a way to preserve and store food long term. Once opened, the canned food can then be easily consumed as it does not require any heat or water.

The good thing about canned food is the fact that the cans provide perfect protection against pests, rodents, and bugs.

Canning can be used to store a wide range of different foods, like meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables.

Canned food typically can last between 1 to 6 years if properly stored.

What Are the Proper Temperatures to Store and Refrigerate Food At?

To store the different types of food properly, you also need to have a good understanding of what are their optimal storage temperatures.

The different foods will also be able to stay good for varying amounts of time as well; in order words, the spoilage rates and expiration dates will vary.

According to its spoilage rates food can be classified into three main groups:

  • Non-perishable foods – like meats, fish, poultry, milk;
  • Semi-Perishable foods – like fruits, veggies, potatoes, bread; and
  • Highly perishable foods – like white rice, pasta, sugar.

The fantastic thing is that you do not need to memorize all the temperature ranges about each type of food.

There are some amazing online resources like the FoodKeeper App, which was developed by the USDA. This app allows you to easily and quickly check the optimal temperatures for the different types of food.

To better paint the whole picture, let us take a look at how food and the different temperatures interact.

The Temperature Danger Zone

What exactly is the temperature danger zone? The temperature danger zone is between 40°F and 140°F (or 4°C and 60°C). At these temperatures, bacteria and microorganisms can grow and multiply. Perishable foods should not be kept in the temperature danger zone for more than 2 hours.

When food is brought to temperatures above 140°F (60°C), the bacteria are gradually destroyed. The higher the temperature, the fewer the bacteria.

Foods can safely be stored at temperatures below 40°F (4°C) as bacteria will not multiply

At temperatures below 0°F (-18°C), most bacteria growth is prevented; however, this does not necessarily mean that all bacteria will be destroyed. Some types of bacteria can still function at temperatures well below freezing. This is why even the food in the freezer will go bad after some time.

The recommended temperature ranges of the areas where you store food will vary, but generally speaking, they should be within certain limits.

  • Refrigerators: 34°F to 40°F (1°C to 4°C);
  • Freezers: 32°F to 0°F (or less) (0°C to -18°C); and
  • Cupboards and Pantries: 50°F to 70°F (10°C to 20°C).

Do Seasons Affect Proper Food Storage and Refrigeration?

What Is the Proper Way to Refrigerate Food?

Did you know that you should be following a few safety guidelines when storing food in your fridge?

The reason why you need to follow these storage guidelines is that this will reduce the risk of cross-contamination and lower the rates of food spoilage.

The proper temperature your refrigerator should maintain is between 32 to 40°F (or 0 to 5°C). This temperature range will ensure that the rates of spoilage are significantly slowed down, and the spoilage bacteria cannot multiply and spread as quickly.

Keep Ready-To-Eat Food on the Top Shelf

Ready-to-eat foods are foods that have already been cooked and prepared for consumption. For example:

  • Salads;
  • Cooked vegetables;
  • Sandwiches;
  • Soups;
  • Desserts;
  • Cooked eggs;
  • Cooked or smoked meats, fish, and poultry; and
  • Leftovers.
Ready-To-Eat Food on the Top Shelf refrigerator
Ready-To-Eat Food on the Top Shelf refrigerator

All ready-to-eat foods should be stored on the top and middle shelves and kept in closed-off food containers. This ensures maximum safety and protection against cross-contamination.

The reason why these foods should go on the top shelf is that the top shelf of the fridge is usually warmer. And cooked foods have a little higher temperature tolerance and will not spoil as quickly as fresh meat, for example.

The other reason is that there is a lower chance of any cross-contamination as there is nothing that can leak or fall into the food, which is not going to be the case if the food was placed on a lower shelf.

Keep Dairy Products and Eggs on the Middle Shelf

The middle shelves are best for storing milk, yogurt, cream, cheese, butter, and eggs.

They do not need to stay in the coldest parts of your fridge, so the middle shelves are the best place for them

Keep Meats, Fish, Poultry on the Bottom Shelf

Raw meats, fish, poultry should go on the bottom shelf. This lowers the chances of bacterial contamination between cooked and uncooked foods.

All foods should be kept wrapped or stored and in closed storage containers. Meets should be stored at low temperatures, and this is why they are held at the bottom where the temperatures are the lowest.

Keep Vegetables and Fruits on the Bottom Drawers

Usually, vegetables and fruits are stored in the bottom drawer.

They should be properly washed and clean and wrapped in breathable paper or plastic wraps beforehand.

Keep Food With Preservatives on the Door Shelves

The door shelves of the fridge are the warmest area of the refrigerator as they are frequently exposed to warmer temperatures.

This is why the door shelves are best used for storing jams, juices, and condiments.

Keep Food in Covered Containers

One of the frequent questions I get is whether or not it is necessary to cover food stored in the fridge.

Foods should always be stored in covered and closed, ideally airtight, containers. Leaving food in open containers or unwrapped is not a good practice. Keeping food covered in the fridge will prevent it from absorbing unpleasant odors, cross-contamination, or drying out.

Opened cans, for example, can lead to chemical contamination, which can speed up spoilage rates of other foods and also alter their taste and smell.

Make sure to keep any foods that also have acidic nature in appropriate storage containers.

Follow the FIFO Rule

In accounting, FIFO stands for “First-in, first-out”.

What this means is that you should always store newer food behind the older one. That way, you will always be rotating your food and consuming it before it spoils.

By not doing that, you are risking having old food being forgotten and crammed in the back of your fridge where it can spoil, start to smell, and contaminate other foods.

Do Not Overload Your Fridge

Bigger fridges equal more food, right? For the most part, that statement is correct, but be careful not to overload your refrigerator. There should always be good airflow inside of it.

Cramming as much food as you possibly can in the fridge can result in poor ventilation and potential blockage of the cooling unit. In some instances, the door may not be able to close tightly. And some foods may even freeze to the back of the fridge.

Overfilling your fridge can also potentially lead to a lower ambient temperature in the refrigerator. Make sure to check the thermostat readings. If there is no way for you to keep an eye on the temperatures inside, you can also use a fridge thermometer.

Do Not Store Hot Food in Your Fridge

After cooking a dish, do not store it immediately in the fridge.

Placing hot food in the fridge is going to raise the temperature in it, which can cause certain foods inside to spoil quicker.

Clean Your Fridge Frequently

Now you can see how important proper food storage and refrigeration are.

But following everything to a T is going to be points if the food is stored in a dirty and unsanitary environment.

Refrigerators should be thoroughly cleaned once every 3 months or so. Make sure to clean all edges, tiny sports, shelves, and handles. That way, you will keep bacteria contamination under control. Every week make sure to inspect the food inside your fridge. If there is any spoiled food, throw it away.

Do not forget to defrost your freezer as well.

The areas underneath and behind the fridge should also be vacuumed.

Resources I Used:

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