Germs have been around since the dawn of time — but only in the past few hundred years has humankind begun to be aware of them. In the 1800s, doctors wouldn’t wash their hands between performing autopsies and life-saving surgeries. They didn’t understand the microscopic world that is invisible to the naked eye.
Today, we know about the hidden world that lurks beneath the microscope. This equips us to combat that world with basic sanitation practices. We know what germs need to thrive, which allows us to take steps to prevent them from growing.
Germs can breed in surprising places, one of which is a place few would think of — the fridge! Germs need six things to thrive which are: moisture, food, comfortable temperatures, time, oxygen and proper acidity. In the fridge, all it takes is one small malfunction or poor refrigerator circulation for germs to find everything they need to create a thriving metropolis.
Why you should clean out your refrigerator
So if your fridge is working properly (ensuring cold temperatures), why do you need to clean it out?
First of all, some germs, like Listeria, can thrive at cold temperatures. Second, putting food in the fridge doesn’t completely stop germs from growing — it only slows them down. If a fridge is dirty or food is left in the fridge too long, germs can multiply to dangerous levels and potentially make you ill. There have been many cases of dirty fridges causing serious illnesses such as Norovirus or Shigella.
The surface area of the fridge naturally picks up germs over time and eventually can become saturated with germs.
When buying groceries, many people have a tendency to go overboard and stock up for weeks at a time. While this saves you a trip to the store, it could be leading to an increase in foodborne illness. It can be tempting to pile the food high in the fridge with leftovers, our favorite snacks, this week’s lunches and other delicious foods. But this can be dangerous because when a fridge is too full, it can cause the air to not circulate properly.
If air is not circulating properly in the fridge, it can cause some items in the fridge to be warmer than others. All food should stay below 40° Fahrenheit to help prevent bacterial growth. If any food gets warmer than 40 degrees, germs can multiply to dangerous levels in the food.
For this reason, it’s essential to maintain a clean and orderly fridge that maintains the temperature below 40 degrees.
Germs that could be lurking in your fridge
There are two main types of bacteria that can ruin the food in your fridge: spoilage bacteria and pathogenic bacteria.
Spoilage bacteria causes foods to spoil over time and can grow at low temperatures. This bacteria can make food unpleasant to eat, but it will generally not make you sick.
Pathogenic bacteria typically have a harder time multiplying at low temperatures, but they are not discernible to the naked eye and can make you seriously ill.
Most cases of foodborne illnesses are attributed to stomach flu when in reality they are food poisoning. These foodborne illnesses can wreak havoc on your body and can even send you to the hospital in some cases. Populations that are more susceptible to sickness such as the elderly, small children, and pregnant women need to be extra careful.
The list below contains a list of some of the most common types of pathogens that can be in your fridge:
- Clostridium botulinum
- E. coli
- Hepatitis A virus
Since you can’t tell with your naked eye if food contains dangerous levels of pathogens, it’s important to have an organized system for your fridge to ensure that foods don’t stay there too long and keep a healthy air circulation in your fridge. Staying organized will help keep you or a loved one from eating food that could give one of the illnesses listed above.
Best fridge-cleaning practices
In order to avoid foodborne illness and its potentially disastrous side effects, it’s essential to maintain a clean fridge. The following are examples of common ways food becomes contaminated in the fridge:
- Food spills
- Open food
- Dripping from food on higher shelves
- Expired food
- Allergen cross-contamination
- Fridge power outage
To avoid all these common but hazardous conditions it’s important to thoroughly clean the inside of your fridge with a solution that consists of two tablespoons of bleach to every quart of water or a vinegar-water solution that has a 1:1 ratio. Afterwards rinse everything with warm water to avoid leaving any cleaning residue in the fridge.
Many people have no idea how to start cleaning the fridge or even where to start. The process is simple, and can be completed in three easy steps:
- Remove all food from the fridge and throw away any food that is expired or contaminated. You can store your food in a cooler temporarily to keep it cold while you clean.
- Remove all shelves and crispers and individually clean them. You should also wipe out the inside of the fridge. Don’t forget to sanitize using one of the solutions mentioned above!
- Dry everything and replace the food in the fridge.
It’s vital to pull out the shelves and drawers and clean them individually in hot soapy water to make sure you can clean every piece of the fridge. This may seem tedious, but making sure to clean those hard-to-reach spots will make sure that there is no mold lurking in a dark corner.
Crispers can get the dirtiest quickest because of all the quickly expiring veggies and fruits that are stored in it. For this reason, weekly fridge cleaning is recommended. This can seem like a tall order, but cleaning out your fridge weekly will keep it in pristine condition and you safe.
To clean the outside of the fridge, simply wipe it down with a wet cloth and a small amount of dish soap. If your fridge is stainless steel, spray it with a little glass cleaner for that extra shine.
Long-term maintenance: how to establish a cleaning system and the first in first out system
If the thought of cleaning your fridge every week fills you with dread, there is good news — with a good organizational system, that process can be quick and easy.
The First In First Out (FIFO) system is just what it sounds like — the foods that are the oldest should stay in the front, so you use them first. This simple idea can save you a lot of time because it will hopefully help prevent food from expiring and rotting in your fridge.
If you think it will be difficult to maintain a regular cleaning schedule for the fridge, remember that spending a few minutes cleaning now could save you days of food poisoning later. If that isn’t enough, think of the sense of pride and accomplishment you will feel at how good your fridge looks when you have guests over.
While cleaning your fridge may sound like something trivial and boring, it is actually essential for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Simply spending 20 minutes a week cleaning can help defeat the hidden world of diseases that are waiting to infect your food.
If you want to know more about the foodborne illnesses that can be found in food and how to avoid them take our food handler training course.
— Josh Wilford
Download infographic: How to Clean Your Fridge