Nebraska Extension Service warns consumers against storing food outdoors

Nebraska Extension Service warns consumers against storing food outdoors

by Sue Jones
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The University of Nebraska–Lincoln Extension Service is warning consumers against storing perishable foods outdoors this winter.

Extremely cold weather is hitting much of the Northern U.S. this week and despite the sub-freezing weather, it’s best to keep food in the refrigerator or freezer. 

Store Foods SafelyThe Nebraska Extension Service urges consumers to understand the potential health risks of improperly chilling food which is to be eaten later. There are true risks when food is stored in unconventional methods.

Refrigeration is vital

Perishable foods like meat, eggs, dairy products, cut fruit and vegetables and leftovers are stored in the refrigerator to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria which can cause food poisoning. Refrigeration also extends the shelf life of other products, like condiments, and makes shelf-stable beverages more refreshing.

Refrigerators and freezers are a controlled and protected environment for food. These appliances maintain a constant temperature which protects food best. Cold food needs to stay cold. 

Bacteria grows and multiplies quickly in food when temperatures rise above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Even if outdoor temperatures do not rise above 40 degrees F there is danger that foods will not stay cold enough to be safe. When bacteria are active in food their growth compromises food safety.

Leaving food outdoors

As those in the north know, outdoor temperatures can fluctuate widely, often above and below 40 degrees F day-to-day or overnight. Storing perishable foods placed outdoors, in a garage, on a balcony or patio exposes them to these fluctuating temperatures. 

Allowing food to be held at inconsistent temperatures increases the risk of foodborne illness when food is later consumed. Sunlight possesses another threat to safely maintain temperature control for foods, especially on a patio or balcony. Just because it may feel “cold” outside does not guarantee that the temperature is in the correct safe range for food storage.

Additional risks

If a container of food is placed on an unclean surface, such as the floor of a porch, that contamination can be brought back into the kitchen when the food container is placed on the counter. 

Outdoor, hungry, curious dogs, cats, squirrels, birds, rodents and other wild animals may be attracted to the smell of food. If animals crawl on top of containers — even if they don’t open or eat food — it can become contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or physical debris when opened inside the house.

Food stored in the garage

Food stored in a garage is also problematic. Food can be contaminated by fumes from cars, trucks and snow blowers, the temperature still fluctuates, and animals are still able to access it. The unsanitary nature of a garage provides additional opportunities for contamination if food is stored near liquids or comes in contact with dust and winter grime.

Because of these concerns, anything perishable should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer instead of outside, no matter how cold it is. More than anything, it’s just not worth the potential risk. 

Finally, the Nebraska Extension Service says to not compromise when it comes to chilling and storing food safely.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

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