If You Have This in Your Fridge, Sanitize It Now, CDC Says

This common occurrence could put you at risk for serious illness, the health authority cautions.

With so many areas of your home that need cleaning, it's no surprise that refrigerators are all too often neglected. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), not cleaning it under certain conditions can lead to the spread of serious foodborne illnesses, including Salmonella, Listeria, and more. The health authority says there's one common occasion that calls not only for a deep scrubbing but also the sanitization of your appliance to protect your wellbeing. Read on to find out if you should be sanitizing your fridge now.

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If you have any recalled food in your fridge, you should sanitize the appliance now.

woman cleaning fridge

There are hundreds of food recalls every year, and experts say their numbers are on the rise. And while many consumers know to throw out tainted items, the CDC warns that doing so may not necessarily keep you safe. "If you have a recalled food item in your refrigerator, it's important to throw out the food and clean your refrigerator," says the CDC. "Germs in the recalled food could spread to drawers or shelves in your refrigerator."

Experts from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) add that despite slowing bacterial growth with low temperatures, your fridge cannot kill off all harmful pathogens. "Some bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) thrive at cold temperatures, and if present, will grow in the refrigerator and could cause illness," the USDA warns.

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Here's how to safely throw out the recalled item.

man throwing away black trash back
Shutterstock / Mike_shots

If you learn of a food recall, the first thing you need to do is discard the item safely—along with any other food that may have come in contact with the tainted item. To do so, seal the item or items in an airtight plastic bag and dispose of it in your garbage can. Bring your garbage outside sooner rather than later.

The USDA adds that when suspected botulism is behind the recall, there are some additional precautions you should take. "When disposing of spoiled food or products possibly contaminated with botulism, place the food, swollen metal cans or suspect glass jar in a heavy opaque or black garbage bag. Close and place the bag in a regular trash container or bury it in a nearby landfill," the USDA advises.

Follow specific precautions before returning food to your fridge.

Man Cleaning Fridge

Next, you'll need to empty your fridge of other food items so that you can clean and sanitize the appliance. You can store them on the counter while you clean, says the CDC. However, it's important that you work quickly. The CDC warns that you should never leave food unrefrigerated for more than two hours. "Bacteria can multiply rapidly if left at room temperature or in the 'Danger Zone' between 40°F and 140°F," says the health authority.

Remove "shelving, drawers, and any other removable parts," and wash them with hot, soapy water. Then, scrub the inside walls and other surfaces of the fridge with soapy water, or wipe it down with a bleach solution. Dry everything with a clean towel and reassemble your fridge.

Once you've finished, the next step is to clean the surfaces that may have come in contact with the tainted item during the cleaning process. Rinse and sanitize any surfaces that held food or refrigerator parts while you were working, and be sure to wash any towels you used to dry the parts. Finally, wash your hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water.

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Don't wait for a recall to throw something away.

Woman going through refrigerator

Though a recall is a surefire way to know that something is wrong with a product in your fridge, experts say they're rare compared to the actual rate of contamination in food products.

Jaydee Hanson, policy director at the Center for Food Safety, explained to Time that the sheer scale of America's food production system makes it impossible to catch all incidents of contamination. "Officially, it's all still being inspected. But it's being inspected at such a high rate of speed that you can't really say it's being inspected," Hanson says. "I have no idea how they could possibly inspect 170-some chickens going by [in] a minute. The chicken's got to be bright orange or something to get pulled off the line."

For this reason, the CDC says that in addition to noting known recalls, you should always check for signs of spoilage and contamination at home. And, if you do suspect you've eaten something unsafe, report it to authorities so they can document your case.

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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