We’ve all been mid-meal, wandered off to do something else more important, and come back to finish off our cold, slightly sorry looking food without giving a second’s thought to what might have happened to the plate. After all, what difference can there really be between pizza fresh out of the box and pizza that has spent a few hours slowly stewing on the sitting room floor? As it happens, the answer is quite a lot.
According to the FDA, the US government organisation apparently determined to stop fun at every opportunity, you should “discard any perishables left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours, unless you’re keeping it hot or cold.” This news is obviously a blow to those of us who like nothing more than revisiting a Friday night takeaway for many days after it was first purchased.
The safety-centric eggheads at the FDA insist that following these guidelines is essential if you want to avoid some of the more damaging side effects of unwelcome bacteria. According to Food Insider, they claim that, “if the food is being kept in an area that is 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius) or above, leftovers should be refrigerated to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius) or below within one hour.”
If this seems a little over the top to those of us who routinely ignore these suggestions, there is method in the madness. As the United States Department of Agriculture explain, “bacteria exist everywhere in nature,” which means that “leaving food out too long at room temperature can cause bacteria (such as Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella Enteritidis, Escherichia coli O157:H7, and Campylobacter) to grow to dangerous levels that can cause illness.” Bad news for anyone who enjoys stale, two-day-old egg fried rice.
Scientists agree that most species of bacteria grow most rapidly between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit - a range ominously referred to by the USDA as “the danger zone”. It is between these two temperatures where scientists from the University of Lincoln Nebraska have reportedly seen a single bacterium “grow to over 2,097,152 bacteria in seven hours” - a potential catastrophe for anyone with a sensitive tummy.
In even more disastrous news, the problem doesn’t necessarily go away when the food is reheated. According to the Washington State Department of Health, both “staphylococcus and bacillus cereus produce heat-resistant toxins that cannot be destroyed with high temperatures,” meaning once your food is infected, it may well be beyond saving.
Of course, as many of us have found through trial and error, not all food that gets left overnight is going to end up killing you. As previously stated, we’ve all eaten something that may have seen better days, with many of us avoiding any side effects altogether. But, as these studies prove, it may only be a matter of time before something serious happens as a result of your questionable eating habits. You can try to outrun fate for as long as you like - eventually, it will catch up to you.