By Dr. Mercola
Most people clean their kitchen on a regular basis, but for many this includes only a cursory wiping of the outside of the refrigerator door. Experts recommend cleaning out your fridge, inside and out, about once every week…
But most Americans do so only once or twice a year1-- and even then typically only when faced with a spill or bad odor. In one survey conducted by Whirlpool Corp., for instance, 33 percent said they spend no time cleaning their refrigerator prior to a trip to the grocery store.
While 27 percent said their strategy to fit in the newly purchased groceries is simply to "shove everything in and not worry about organization."2 This certainly isn't ideal, but…
Is an Unorganized, Little-Cleaned Fridge an Actual Health Risk?
It can be. Any bacteria, parasite, or virus that can cause food poisoning can be transferred to your refrigerator shelves and crisper drawers from spilled or leaking food. Even food that's not contaminated can become dangerous if it's left in the back corner of your fridge for too long, and anything it touches also runs the risk of making you sick.
That being said, the most important aspect of preventing food-borne illness is not knowing how to clean your refrigerator… it's knowing where to find high-quality foods. Disease-causing bacteria and other pathogens run rampant in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which is where most meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs in your supermarket come from.
For instance, two-thirds of fresh, whole CAFO broiler chickens bought nationwide contained Campylobacter or Salmonella, the leading causes of food-borne disease,3 according to a Consumer Reports study. Meanwhile, organic poultry farms have been found to have significantly lower levels of drug-resistant bacteria than CAFOs.4
So the precautions about carefully cleaning your refrigerator and avoiding cross-contamination are well placed. But please remember that foods sourced from CAFOs are those most likely to harbor disease-causing bacteria in the first place. Food that is raised on small, local organic farms in accordance with the laws of nature (such as feeding on grass for cows) is likely to pose much less of a threat.
From an organizational standpoint, there is a method for where to store your food that's based on safety. Certain parts of your refrigerator are colder than others while other spaces (like the shelves on the door) fluctuate in temperature.
It's important to store highly perishable foods that require cold storage in the coldest, most temperature-stable areas of your fridge to avoid spoilage.
Sub-Zero's Fridge Organization Study Reveals 'Chaos' in Most Americans' Fridges
Kitchen appliance maker Sub-Zero has studied the way Americans organize their fridges – and the results weren't pretty. They handed 12 different people a week's worth of groceries and asked them to put them away in a fridge. The result was "chaos." For instance, many people:
- Stored meat and soda cans in the crisper drawers, which have a special temperature and humidity meant to store vegetables
- Stored milk on the refrigerator door, which is the warmest part of the fridge
- Did not know what to do with the special cheese compartment
Sub-Zero's corporate marketing manager noted, "most people don't know what they are doing when they pack the refrigerator."5 The company responded by including cards that explain which parts of the refrigerator work best for storing which items, as well as which foods are best left right on the counter.
Planning Your Meals Before You Shop Can Help You Avoid Some of the Chaos
The chaos that erupts in many Americans' fridges is likely partly due to a lack of "refrigerator organization" knowledge… but often it's also the result of poor meal planning. If you've got containers of food sitting in your fridge for long enough to get moldy (or forget what's even in the container), you're probably not planning out your meals as efficiently as possible.
Before you go food shopping, make a meal plan for the week. Do a thorough check of what you already have on hand so you don't let good food go bad. If you're on a budget and need to prioritize which foods to buy organic, choose organic animal products (meat, eggs, and dairy) first, and then purchase organic produce.
Examples of excellent "staple" items that can make a weekly appearance on your grocery list include:
- Organic pastured eggs
- Organic grass-fed beef
- Wild-caught MSC-certified sardines or Alaskan salmon (don't be afraid to store fish in your freezer, as doing so will actually kill parasites)
- Raw dairy products, including cheese and yogurt
- Avocados and other organic produce, especially leafy greens and cruciferous veggies
Where to Store Different Foods in Your Fridge
The infographic below, from Nutrition Action,6 gives a quick explanation of how to best organize your fridge for food safety. What you'll notice is that raw meat, fish, poultry, and even leftovers – the foods that necessitate cold, stable temperatures – should be kept on the bottom shelf.
This also ensures that any drippings will not contaminate other foods on their way down. The crisper drawers, meanwhile, are intended for fruits and vegetables – but not all fruits and vegetables.
Those meant for the crisper include leafy greens, melons, celery, broccoli, and apples, while others can be safely stored on the top shelf. Apples should actually be stored away from other uncovered produce, as the ethylene gases they produce can cause other foods to spoil faster.
As for the middle shelf, that works best for cheeses and cooked meats, while the door should be used to store condiments, including butter. You'll also want to make sure your fridge is kept cold enough -- below 40° Fahrenheit, or 4° Celsius.
This will ensure food safety. Also leave enough space in your fridge for cold air to circulate. If your refrigerator is too tightly packed, your food will spoil faster.
Important Tips to Keep Your Food Fresh
The average US consumer wastes 61 percent of the food he or she purchases. You can drastically reduce this by learning the basics of proper food storage. To best preserve beets, for example, you would remove the green tops and refrigerate the beets and the greens in separate plastic bags, while corn should be refrigerated while still in the husk to stay fresh the longest.
Citrus fruits, on the other hand, can last up to two weeks right on the counter, while garlic and onions need to be stored in a dark, cool pantry, where they will stay fresh for up to four months.
Herbs can be notoriously tricky to keep from wilting, but if you keep them in an airtight container wrapped in a moistened paper towel, they'll maintain their freshness for up to 10 days in your fridge. The life of leafy greens can also be extended by as much as three extra days if you don't wash them before putting them in your fridge.
Also keep in mind that apples, pears, and bananas release natural ripening agents that will hasten the demise of any other produce placed in their vicinity. For more details, I've listed 27 tips to make your groceries last longer here, which include:
- Store onions in old pantyhose to keep them fresh for up to eight months (tie a knot in between each one to keep them separate).
- Chop dry green onions and store them in an empty plastic water bottle. Put the bottle in the freezer and sprinkle out what you need when you're cooking.
- When storing potatoes, keep them away from onions (this will make them spoil faster). Storing them with apples will help keep the potatoes from sprouting.
- Store salad greens in a bowl covered with plastic wrap, and add a paper towel to help absorb moisture. A salad spinner will also help remove excess moisture -- a key culprit in wilting leaves -- from your greens.
- Mushrooms should be stored in a paper bag in a cool dry place, or in the fridge. Avoid storing mushrooms in plastic, as any trapped moisture will cause them to spoil.
How to Best Clean Your Refrigerator
Why do so many Americans seem to resist cleaning out their fridge? Because it's a hassle. Still, doing a thorough cleaning once a week or so is important for sanitary reasons, and will also force you to go through the food in your fridge (prompting you to use up what you can and discard anything that's spoiled).
The best time to clean your fridge is when it's low on food, such as right before a trip to the grocery store or farmer's market. Dispose of food that's spoiled (use common sense on this one, but don't base the decision on a food's expiration date alone). Ultimately, the greatest factor impacting whether your food is "safe" isn't total storage time, but rather is related to how much time it spends in the temperature "danger zone" (between 40-120°F).7
Next, tackle one shelf or drawer at a time, removing all items, cleansing the surface using a soft cloth, natural soap, and hot water, and then drying it thoroughly. As you replace your food items, take care to organize them according to the storage guidance above. While you might be tempted to use a strong disinfectant to kill germs in your fridge, such cleansers often contain toxic chemicals – and many of them can damage the surface of your shelves.
Check the owner's manual to be sure the cleaning agent you use is safe for your particular model (but most should do fine with natural soap and water). For extra cleaning power, try making this homemade antibacterial solution: mix two cups of water with three tablespoons of castile soap and 20-30 drops of tea tree oil. Spray onto the surface, then wipe off. After you've done your weekly cleaning, be sure to also "spot" clean as necessary, especially if you notice any spills or drips.