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Expert explains why leftover food needs to be consumed and stored with caution

Leftovers occupy much space on our kitchen counters but it is not always safe to eat. Food safety expert explains the correct way to store starchy food.

Expert explains why leftover food needs to be consumed and stored with caution
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | Nadim Shaikh

In the fast-paced hectic lives of adults across the globe, feeding oneself has become an added responsibility and task. To make things easier, leftovers have been accepted as the new norm in the daily lives of adults. However, consuming leftovers is not as easy or safe as the reheat option in microwaves makes it out to be. A 2008 case of a 20-year-old man dying of consuming a five-day-old pasta is resurfacing on the internet as the ‘fried rice syndrome’ along with concerns regarding the safe consumption of leftover food. This notable incident from 2008 was recorded in the National Library of Medicine in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology as a case of death due to 'bacillus cereus' food poisoning.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Cottonbro Studio
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Cottonbro Studio

It revealed that even though the man reheated the pasta in the microwave, the pasta, being five days old and left out at room temperature, got infected with the bacteria "bacillus cereus." After eating the leftovers, he headed out for some sports but returned after thirty minutes because of a severe headache. He then suffered from vomiting and diarrhea all night, ultimately passing away in his sleep that night.

A similar case was registered in 2021 in The New England Journal of Medicine of a 19-year-old man who consumed leftover lo mein noodles resulting in multiple amputations and organ failure. Addressing this case of serious food poisoning and concerns regarding the consumption of leftover food, Lawrence Goodridge, professor of Food Safety at the University of Guelph, spoke to PEOPLE and highlighted that bacillus cereus is commonly found in starchy foods like pasta, whole wheat, etc.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Polina Tankilevitch
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Polina Tankilevitch

He emphasized, "Rice is always the big one.” Goodridge further explained that the bacteria forms as a spore while cooking itself. However, it only grows when the cooked food is left out at room temperature. He said, “When they grow in the food, they produce toxins, ones that can make us vomit or have diarrhea. If you eat that food, then you get sick."

What’s interesting is that it’s not common to be fatally ill from such consumption and the illness usually lasts only 24 hours, but there are rare cases that reach an irretrievable stage. Sharing insight on what preventive measures can one take while cooking, Goodridge said that properly boiling rice (or other starch) can keep bacteria off and most importantly, keep the food out of “the danger zone.” He explained, “The danger zone is a temperature range between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. That's the range in which this bacteria and other food-borne bacteria grow the quickest."

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Kevin Malik
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Kevin Malik

Some wise words by Goodridge to keep in mind, “There's a saying we have. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.” He says to remember that if your rice is not for immediate consumption, then you need to store it at higher than 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Additionally, if it’s not going to be consumed for quite some time, then cool it down within two to three hours down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit which means storing it in the refrigerator. And finally, whenever in doubt, trash it. So the next time you find yourself salivating over the delicious ramen or fried rice from last night, take the correct measures to store it and only then indulge your taste buds.

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