Food Safety: Food Storage, Preparation & Handling
  • How long is it safe to keep a turkey, or other meat or poultry product, in the freezer?
  • Is it safe to refreeze food that has thawed completely?
  • What is the safest way to thaw a frozen turkey?
  • What is a safe internal temperature for cooking meat and poultry?
  • How can I safely cook meat or poultry in the microwave oven?
  • Is it safe to eat leftover food that was left out on the counter to cool at dinnertime, then forgotten until morning? Will
  • additional cooking kill the bacteria that may have grown
  • Should a large pot of soup sit on the range until it cools, or should it be refrigerated hot?
  • What should I do to keep refrigerated and frozen foods safe during a power failure?
  • How can I safely transport perishable foods to a picnic site, community supper, or family gathering?
  • Are canned goods still safe after a year? Two years? Longer?

How long is it safe to keep a turkey, or other meat or poultry product, in the freezer?
Because freezing keeps food safe almost indefinitely, recommended storage times are for quality only. Refer to the freezer storage chart at the end of Freezing and Food Safety, which lists optimum freezing times for best quality.
If a food is not listed on the chart, you may determine its quality after defrosting. First check the odor. Some foods will develop a rancid or off odor when frozen too long and should be discarded. Some may not look picture perfect or be of high enough quality to serve alone but may be edible; use them to make soups or stews. Cook raw food and if you like the taste and texture, use it.(Source: Freezing and Food Safety)


Is it safe to refreeze food that has thawed completely?
Once food is thawed in the refrigerator, it is safe to refreeze it without cooking, although there may be a loss of quality due to the moisture lost through defrosting. After cooking raw foods which were previously frozen, it is safe to freeze the cooked foods. And if previously cooked foods are thawed in the refrigerator, you may refreeze the unused portion. If you purchase previously frozen meat, poultry or fish at a retail store, you can refreeze if it has been handled properly. (Source: Freezing and Food Safety)

What is the safest way to thaw a frozen turkey?
The USDA recommends three ways to defrost turkeys: in the refrigerator, in cold water and in the microwave. Never defrost turkey on the counter or in other locations.

  • It's best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Allow about 1 day for every 5 pounds of turkey to thaw in the refrigerator.
  • Turkey may be defrosted in cold water in its airtight packaging or in a leak-proof bag. Submerge the bird or cut-up parts in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes.
  • Turkey defrosted in the microwave should be cooked immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed.
If you purchase previously frozen meat, poultry or fish at a retail store, you can refreeze if it has been handled properly. (Source: Food Safety of Turkey... from Farm to Table. For information on thawing other items, see The Big Thaw - Safe Defrosting Methods for Consumers)

What is a safe internal temperature for cooking meat and poultry?

  • Cook all raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 63 °C as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook meat to higher temperatures.
  • Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 71 °C as measured with a food thermometer.
  • Cook all poultry to a safe minimum internal temperature of 74 °C as measured with a food thermometer.

How can I safely cook meat or poultry in the microwave oven?

Microwave Cooking
  • Arrange food items evenly in a covered dish and add some liquid if needed. Cover the dish with a lid or plastic wrap; loosen or vent the lid or wrap to let steam escape. The moist heat that is created will help destroy harmful bacteria and ensure uniform cooking. Cooking bags also provide safe, even cooking.
  • Do not cook large cuts of meat on high power (100%). Large cuts of meat should be cooked on medium power (50%) for longer periods. This allows heat to reach the center without overcooking outer areas.
  • Stir or rotate food midway through the microwaving time to eliminate cold spots where harmful bacteria can survive, and for more even cooking.
  • When partially cooking food in the microwave to finish cooking on the grill or in a conventional oven, it is important to transfer the microwaved food to the other heat source immediately. Never partially cook food and store it for later use.
  • Use a food thermometer or the oven's temperature probe to verify the food has reached a safe temperature. Cooking times may vary because ovens vary in power and efficiency. Cook all raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 63 °C as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook meat to higher temperatures. Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 71 °C as measured with a food thermometer. Cook all poultry to a safe minimum internal temperature of 74 °C as measured with a food thermometer.
  • Cooking whole, stuffed poultry in a microwave is not recommended. The stuffing might not reach the temperature needed to destroy harmful bacteria.

Microwave Reheating
  • Cover foods with a lid or a microwave-safe plastic wrap to hold in moisture and provide safe, even heating.
  • Heat ready-to-eat foods such as hot dogs, luncheon meats, fully cooked ham, and leftovers until steaming hot.
  • Stir or rotate food midway through the microwaving time to eliminate cold spots where harmful bacteria can survive, and for more even cooking.
  • After reheating foods in the microwave oven, allow standing time. Use a clean food thermometer to check that food has reached 74 °C. (Sources: Microwave Ovens and Food Safety; Cooking Safely in the Microwave Oven)

Is it safe to eat leftover food that was left out on the counter to cool at dinnertime, then forgotten until morning? Will additional cooking kill the bacteria that may have grown?

No. Bacteria exist everywhere in nature. They are in the soil, air, water, and the foods we eat. When they have nutrients (food), moisture, and favorable temperatures, they grow rapidly, increasing in numbers to the point where some types of bacteria can cause illness. Bacteria grow most rapidly in the range of temperatures between 4 and 63 °C, some doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. Some types will produce toxins that are not destroyed by cooking.
Pathogenic bacteria do not generally affect the taste, smell, or appearance of a food. In other words, one cannot tell that a food has been mishandled or is dangerous to eat. For example, food that has been left too long on the counter may be dangerous to eat, but could smell and look fine. If a food has been left in the "Danger Zone" – between 4 and 63 °C – for more than 2 hours, discard it, even though it may look and smell good. Never taste a food to see if it is spoiled. (Sources: Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency; Fighting BAC!® by Chilling Out; Refrigeration and Food Safety.)

Should a large pot of soup sit on the range until it cools, or should it be refrigerated hot? Hot food can be placed directly in the refrigerator or it can be rapidly chilled in an ice or cold water bath before refrigerating. Cover foods to retain moisture and prevent them from picking up odors from other foods.

A large pot of food like soup or stew should be divided into small portions and put in shallow containers before being refrigerated. A large cut of meat or whole poultry should be divided into smaller pieces and wrapped separately or placed in shallow containers before refrigerating.

What should I do to keep refrigerated and frozen foods safe during a power failure?

KEEP THE FREEZER DOOR CLOSED. Keep what cold air you have inside. Don't open the door any more than necessary. You'll be relieved to know that a full freezer will stay at freezing temperatures about 2 days; a half-full freezer about 1 day. If your freezer is not full, group packages so they form an "igloo" to protect each other. Place them to one side or on a tray so that if they begin thawing, their juices won't get on other food. And, if you think power will be out for several days, try to find some dry ice. Although dry ice can be used in the refrigerator, block ice is better. You can put it in the refrigerator's freezer unit along with your refrigerated perishables such as meat, poultry, and dairy items.
EVEN IF FOOD HAS STARTED TO THAW, SOME FOODS CAN BE SAFELY KEPT. The foods in your freezer that partially or completely thaw before power is restored may be safely refrozen if they still contain ice crystals or are 40 °F or below. You will have to evaluate each item separately. Generally, be very careful with meat and poultry products or any food containing milk, cream, sour cream, or soft cheese. When in doubt, throw them out.
In general, refrigerated items should be safe as long as power is out no more than 4 hours. Keep the door closed as much as possible. Discard any perishable foods (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and leftovers) that have been above 4 °C for 2 hours or more, and any food that has an unusual odor, color, or texture, or feels warm to the touch.
KEEP AN APPLIANCE THERMOMETER IN THE REFRIGERATOR AND FREEZER AT ALL TIMES. This will remove the guesswork of just how cold the unit is because it will give you the exact temperature. The key to determining the safety of foods in the refrigerator and freezer is knowing how cold they are. The refrigerator temperature should be 4 °C or below; the freezer, -18 °C or lower.
More detailed information, along with a chart that tells which foods may be saved and which should be thrown out, may be found in Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency. (Source: Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency)

How can I safely transport perishable foods to a picnic site, community supper, or family gathering?

If taking food away from home--on a picnic, for example--try to plan just the right amount of perishable foods to take. That way, you won't have to worry about the storage or safety of leftovers.
Items which don't require refrigeration include fruits, vegetables, hard cheese, canned meat or fish, chips, bread, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, mustard, and pickles. You don't need to pack them in a cooler.
After estimating the amount of food which needs to be kept cold, pack an insulated cooler with sufficient ice or gel packs to keep the food at 4 °C. Pack food right from the refrigerator or freezer into it.
Why? Bacteria grow and multiply rapidly in the danger zone between 4 °C and 63 °C (out of the refrigerator or before food begins to cook). So, food transported without an ice source or left out in the sun at a picnic won't stay safe long.
If packing a bag lunch or lunch box, it's fine to prepare the food the night before and store the packed lunch in the refrigerator.
To keep the lunch cool away from home, pack a small frozen gel pack or frozen juice box. Of course, if there's a refrigerator at work, store perishable items there upon arrival. Leftover perishables which have been kept refrigerated should be safe to take home. But once gel packs and other cold sources melt, perishables are not safe -- discard them.
When taking food to a picnic, don't put the cooler in the trunk; carry it inside the air-conditioned car. At the picnic, keep the cooler in the shade. Keep the lid closed and avoid repeated openings. Replenish the ice if it melts. (For more information: Keeping "Bag" Lunches Safe)

Are canned goods still safe after a year? Two years? Longer?

Store canned foods and other shelf stable products in a cool, dry place. Never put them above the stove, under the sink, in a damp garage or basement, or any place exposed to high or low temperature extremes. Store high acid foods such as tomatoes and other fruit up to 18 months; low acid foods such as meat and vegetables, 2 to 5 years.
Canned meat and poultry will keep at best quality 2 to 5 years if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place.
While extremely rare, a toxin produced by Clostridium botulinum is the worst danger in canned goods. NEVER USE food from containers that show possible "botulism" warnings: leaking, bulging, or badly dented cans; cracked jars or jars with loose or bulging lids; canned food with a foul odor; or any container that spurts liquid when opening. DON'T TASTE SUCH FOOD! Even a minuscule amount of botulinum toxin can be deadly.
Can linings might discolor or corrode when metal reacts with high-acid foods such as tomatoes or pineapple. As long as the can is in good shape, the contents should be safe to eat, although the taste, texture and nutritional value of the food can diminish over time.

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