Dissecting NAFDAC’s warning on storing cooked food in refrigerators

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Every year, World Food Safety Day is marked on June 7. It is usually a time to draw attention to global food safety issues. 

This year’s theme, “Food Safety: Prepare for the unexpected,” came amid the cholera outbreak in Nigeria that claimed the lives of over 50 people across 32 states in Nigeria, with at least 1,500 reported cases, according to data from the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). 

In commemoration of the event, the National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) explained that storing cooked food in the fridge for more than three days could harm people’s health. 

Mojisola Adeyeye, the director general of the agency, was quoted as saying cooked food stored in the refrigerator for days is susceptible to contamination by disease-causing pathogens, which are key agents of foodborne diseases that can lead to death.

Recall that the World Health Organisation had also warned against eating food that was not properly refrigerated. The body notes that refrigerated and frozen foods may be unsafe to eat if exposed to temperatures above 5 °C for more than 2 hours.

It further advised that perishable foods stored in the fridge should be discarded after four hours of a power cut. 

Meanwhile, NAFDAC’s advice on food preservation and storage sparked a debate on social media about whether cooked food stored in refrigerators is harmful, particularly due to the peculiarity of the country’s electric supply. 

Fridge or freezer? Contextualising the Issue 

In its customer guide, LG Electronics explained that the major difference between a refrigerator and a freezer is the temperature. It noted that the best temperature range for a refrigerator is between 0 and 4 degrees Celsius, while a freezer requires a lower temperature of about 0 to -18 degrees.

The company also explained that a freezer’s insulation is thicker, as it is meant for long-term storage, compared to a refrigerator’s.

In one of its articles on food safety, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States noted that storing foods at proper temperatures can help prevent or slow the growth of certain bacteria that cause illnesses. 

The body advised that perishable foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and other foods that require refrigeration must be refrigerated or frozen immediately. 

“Stick to the ‘two-hour rule’ for leaving items needing refrigeration out at room temperature,” it noted. 

The FDA further noted that any food that looks or smells suspicious should be discarded. It, however, emphasised that even food that doesn’t smell or look bad can make a person sick. 

“Be aware that food can make you very sick even when it doesn’t look, smell, or taste spoiled. That’s because foodborne illnesses are caused by pathogenic bacteria, which are different from the spoilage bacteria that make foods go bad,” it noted.

The agency explained that many pathogenic organisms are present in raw or undercooked meat, poultry, seafood, milk, eggs, unclean water, and fruits and vegetables.

It also said storing them at the right temperature will slow the growth of the bacteria. 

The body, however, warned that refrigerator and freezer doors should be kept shut in the case of a power outage. A refrigerator is expected to remain cold four hours after the outage, while a full freezer will remain cold after 48 hours if the doors are kept shut.

Nevertheless, it advised that if the power outage lasts more than four hours, all perishable foods in the fridge should be thrown out.  

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) identified chilling as one of the major ways of storing food safely to prevent the growth or multiplication of good-borne germs causing illness or, eventually, death. 

Experts speak

DUBAWA spoke with Dr Sulaimon Kosoko, a chief research officer at the Federal Institute of Industrial Research in Oshodi (FIIRO). 

He said there are risks associated with storing food in the fridge because of the storage temperature. However, he said there might be no issues when food is kept in the freezer at the right temperature. 

Dr Kosoko further explained that when food is cooked, humans deem it ready to eat, but the preparation method can sometimes make microorganisms thrive on cooked food.

He added, “With a fridge, there are risks involved because of the storage temperature, but with the freezer, once it’s frozen, there might be no issues. 

“The operating temperature of a fridge is not the same as the freezer and when you cook, you “prepare” the food to be good for human beings; it will also be easily digestible for microorganisms. Once it’s cooked, the microorganisms will be able to attack it more, exposing it to microbial attacks than when it is in its raw state, just because once cooked, you have a lot of moisture content in there, and with moisture, microorganisms will grow.”

Dr Kosoko noted that the fridge is designed to preserve food for a short period, after which it is reheated and consumed, as he advised against keeping food in the fridge for a longer period. 

According to him, this is because even in ‘cool’ environments, some microorganisms can thrive, putting the food or its consumer at risk. 

“You can store food, let’s say within a day, in a fridge, reheat, and eat. Leaving it for a longer time can make it unsafe to eat. Some microorganisms can thrive under “cold” conditions. Just like putting a peeled orange, you have removed the outer protective layer. Even if the peeled orange is kept in the fridge, mould will start growing. Some microorganisms love cold conditions,” he added. 

He further explained that food stored in the freezer at the right temperature should be safe for consumption. 

Also speaking, Dr John Tehinse, a freelance consultant on food safety, says while frozen food might remain safe, the situation of electricity supply in the country makes it relative. 

He explained that cooked food stored in the freezer might start defrosting once there’s a power outage, adding that the texture and many other things get affected when this happens. 

Dr Tehinse, who is also a retired food safety lecturer, noted that before the next cycle of freezing, bacteria or fungi can grow on the cooked food, making it unsafe.

He noted that if there is a steady electricity supply, food stored in the freezer will be safe for consumption regardless of the timeframe.

“If you are sure there’s a steady electricity supply, and the temperature will remain below 10°Centigrade, but some of our freezers at home don’t keep the temperature as low as that, and we don’t have an assurance that the temperature is kept below 10°Centigrade,” he stressed. 

”What I think NAFDAC is trying to say is to avoid unknown factors, don’t store cooked food in your refrigerator for more than two days, because within the two days, the bacteria may not have been able to produce the toxins that could make you sick when consumed. 

”Assuming you have a steady electricity supply, you may be able to store below 10°centigrade, and therefore, it will remain like that because below 10°centigrade, the water is solid. Therefore, that cannot help the bacteria to grow, but in a situation where the water is not solid, the water will move from one part of the food to another. It helps the bacteria to migrate from one part to another.”

He further advised that food be stored in minimal portions that can be finished once to avoid defrosting and refreezing, which is very unsafe as it allows destructive organisms to grow and multiply in the food. He explained that this act of defrosting and refreezing also leads to a loss of nutrients. 

“Defrosting and refreezing is worse. When you defrost, you have helped to mobilize the pathogens — the destructive organisms- and you have helped them to mobilise to other parts of the food, and you lose nutrients. The defrosted water carries soluble nutrients that should be of use to your body, but when they ooze out, you lose those valuable nutrients,” he quipped. 

“Secondly, you have given the bacteria another life because it now has free water, and it’s looking for water. When you freeze, you freeze that excess water, which prevents the bacteria from growing. Freezing doesn’t kill bacteria; only boiling does.”

He further stated that NAFDAC should warn Nigerians to clear misconceptions about food storage.

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