Freezing Your Food Doesn't Keep It Safe, People

Photo by stevendepolo

On an almost innate level, it seems to make sense.

You get your food, stick it in the cold chill of the freezer for a few days, and it's safe to eat. Whatever bad pathogens or microbes living inside of it should be cleansed. After all, they're simply living organisms, albeit super tiny ones. And if you deprive them of the ability to live, you should be safe. (Unless they're, like, zombie microbes, in which case we all need to start worrying about something else entirely.) But this notion of freezing = safe is terribly, terribly wrong.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture has explained that foods kept at or below zero degrees will always be "safe to eat," their definition of safe means "not spoiled," instead of actually "completely safe to eat." As this report from NPR makes clear, deadly microbes can still lurk inside frozen food:

"It actually does a pretty good job of preserving many of the pathogens and microbes that will cause problems later if thawed out," says Trevor Suslow, an extension research specialist at the University of California, Davis, who studies food safety.

This public service announcement warning comes on the heels of another E. coli outbreak, this time from chicken found inside Farm Rich brand frozen foods like quesadillas and pot pies. It's the first time this strain of E. coli's been found inside frozen foods, and authorities seem to think it spread at such a quick rate -- sickening at least 27 people in 15 states, mostly young teenagers no doubt throwing together an easy after-school snack -- in part because of the general feeling of safety that comes with frozen foods. In reality, however, the same properties keeping items in the freezer from spoiling are also preserving the illness-inducing microbes.

Martin Weidmann, a professor of food science over at Cornell, says, "We store a lot of microbes in the lab. The easiest way is at minus 80 degrees."

Sticking them inside of a home freezer, then, is just another way to preserve them. Think of it like this, if you will:

In the early-to-mid '90s, when "Saturday Night Live" was truly at its peak, there was a recurring sketch in which Phil Hartman played an "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer." The concept was straightforward: A caveman frozen in ice "one hundred thousand years ago" was discovered by scientists, thawed out, went to law school, and began working as a personal injury lawyer. The whole thing was one long set-up to the moment where KeyRock -- the character's actual name, according to the surprisingly-lengthy Wikipedia entry on the topic -- would summarize the case to the judge with a version of the following explanation: "Your honor. I am a simple caveman. Your world frightens me. But despite being utterly terrified of these tiny demon creatures inside of this mini electronic contraption you call a T... V..., there is one thing I am certain of, and that's that my client is..." And so forth and so on.

Which is to say, look at microbes like tiny versions of the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. They are lurking in your food, waiting to be thawed. And once they are, they'll use their savvy and manipulative powers on us. But instead of using them to get clients extra money for their "pain and suffering," they'll use them to get us terribly ill. So, make sure to attack them first by dousing your food with the one thing that's sure to kill them off entirely: Fire. Lots and lots of fire.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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