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August 25, 2009 8:45 AM   Subscribe

Why are things suddenly starting to go bad/sour/rotten in my fridge much sooner than they used to?

In the last couple of weeks, I've noticed that time seems to be running faster inside my refrigerator. Last night, I discovered that a bottle of V-8 (the low-sodium variet, if it matters) that I bought about 10 days ago looked kind of distended, and when I unscrewed the lid, a lot of air burst out -- fermentation of some sort, I figured. Still, only (about) 10 days after purchase? I've bought V-8 before, and I've been able to open it, use some, store it in the fridge -- rinse and repeat -- for something like two months without a hint of it "turning," let alone fermenting!

Another mysterious thing: There's this carton of "O Organic" 2% milk (Safeway store brand, also known as Von's, Genuardi's, etc. depending where you live) that has an expiration date sometime in mid-September. I'm always amazed at how far out their expiration dates are, and they tend to be accurate. Just this morning, I noticed it's smelling a little. Already. I bought it with the V-8, about 10 days ago, on the same shopping trip.

A little "thing" of yogurt, also from the same shopping trip, with an expiration date some time in early September, looked "fat" also -- the foil lid was rounded instead of flat, as if filled with air. Fermentation of some sort also.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that some not-yet-at-expiration-date cream cheese was starting to show spots of discoloration/mold prematurely as well.

What the hell's going on? All of a sudden, things are going bad sooner, and as a single person who goes through food slowly, this is especially inconvenient.

A few bits of info, if it helps: I have a bit of a fruit fly problem in the kitchen, so I relocated a small bowl of fruit (previously on the counter) into the kitchen about a week ago to keep it away from those little buggers. Also, the icemaker on the freezer side has gotten really fussy lately -- it just plain stopped making ice about two weeks ago, but for some reason, toying with the little water pipe thing on the inside, and pulling the fridge out from the wall a couple of feet, made it work again. Also, at one point last week, there was a mildly foul/rotting smell in the fridge for about half a day, but it went away soon after I threw out a half-tomato in a Ziploc bag that had begun to go bad.

Is there some kind of . . . "contagion" effect? That is, if one or two things start to go bad in a fridge, then even if you remove them and throw them out, do . . . THINGS linger in the air of the fridge, attacking other things, even prematurely? I don't get it. It's like there's some kind of food-rotting ghost in the damn thing, and it's irritating me . . .
posted by CommonSense to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What's the temperature inside your fridge? Is there a possibility that something bumped something and the temperature control on your fridge got accidentally adjusted?

Also -- that bowl inside your fridge. Is it maybe juuuuuuust big enough that your fridge isn't closing all the way, and is open just a crack?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:51 AM on August 25, 2009

Is there some kind of . . . "contagion" effect? That is, if one or two things start to go bad in a fridge, then even if you remove them and throw them out, do . . . THINGS linger in the air of the fridge, attacking other things, even prematurely?

This does happen, but its unlikely to affect things in closed containers like milk and yogurt. It commonly effects fruits and vegetables that are stored in close proximity to one another. I'd check the temp. Are you buying the stuff from the same places? Like the deli by my house stores its milk at too high of a temperature, so the milk spoils much more quickly than it should, no matter how you store it once you get it home.

Lastly, on your milk:

I'm always amazed at how far out their expiration dates are, and they tend to be accurate. Just this morning, I noticed it's smelling a little.

According to Google results, O Organics milk is ultra-high-temperature pasteurized. This means that the milk's shelf life will be dramatically extended (at the expense of it tasting like ass), so long as the carton is sealed. That "sell-by" date refers to how long the milk will survive in its hermetically sealed condition with proper storage. Once you open it and expose it to air and ambient spoilage agents, it turns back into regular (but still non-tasty) milk. If you bought it and opened it 10 days ago, yeah, it should smell pretty funny by now. It should not taste too hot. So the milk mystery is perhaps not so mysterious.
posted by jeb at 8:59 AM on August 25, 2009

We recently had a problem with things spoiling in our fridge and put a probe thermometer in there to find out it was in the 50's instead of 30s/40s. You may want to start there.

When the repair guy came over there were two issues: the settings weren't in a good position (we had adjusted them when we noticed our fridge wasn't as cold, but the dial is counter intuitive and we had set them the wrong way) and the defrost timer had blown so the freezer wasn't running as much and it's the cold from the freezer that gets pumped into the fridge. So you need to make sure that the airway from the freezer to the fridge isn't blocked, that your fridge settings are in the proper position etc.

Good luck!
posted by Kimberly at 9:04 AM on August 25, 2009

Temperature is definitely the first thing to check. Stop by a hardware store, or maybe Target, and get a fridge thermometer.
posted by jon1270 at 9:04 AM on August 25, 2009

I don't know how old your fridge is, but I've noticed that I need to make it a little colder during the summer, to make up for the warm weather.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:27 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Like everyone else said -- check your temperature. This one on Amazon is just fine, but you should be able to buy one locally as well. This is almost assuredly your problem. As to fixing that problem? That's a whole new can of worms. :)
posted by suburbanrobot at 9:29 AM on August 25, 2009

Also check the seal around the door - sometimes ours has to be pushed back in a bit, or wiped down if there is condensation.
posted by cestmoi15 at 9:43 AM on August 25, 2009

What is up with the usability disaster of the common refrigerator control dials?!?! Mine say "freezer: warmer/colder" and "refrigerator : 1-5". The freezer one actually controls the flow of air from the freezer to the refrigerator (i.e.: if the freezer is warmer in relation to the total amount of heat in the box, the fridge is colder), and the refrigerator one actually controls the base temperature of the freezer (i.e: if the freezer is colder in relation to the outside temperature, the fridge will be too).
posted by Caviar at 9:43 AM on August 25, 2009

Response by poster: I did turn the fridge temperature up a BIT a couple of weeks ago, because it seemed like it was always running. (I'm sure it's not, but . . . just kinda seemed that way.) Maybe that's the problem. I've turned it back down, and will see if that helps.

I have a little wine fridge that the previous owners left a small thermometer in, so I'll just use that. We'll see how it goes.

Still, an unopened little yogurt thing, still not set to expire for a couple of weeks, puffing up like that? I can't imagine that's temperature-related . . . is it?

Regarding the milk, I've gotten that variety in the past, and it's lasted forever. There are actually two dates on the top of the carton -- a sell-by and a use-by. The sell-by is tomorrow, and the use-by is somewhere in mid-September. So it should be fine. Based on my previous experience with the brand (and actually, most hyper-pasteurized organic brands), they really DO live up to the insanely far-off expiration dates.

(I don't drink milk straight -- always in coffee or tea -- so the loss in taste is kind of a moot point. I'd love farm-fresh raw milk in a glass bottle, sure, but with my usage habits, I'd enjoy maybe 5% of it before it started to go bad.)
posted by CommonSense at 9:55 AM on August 25, 2009

Yogurt ferments even in sealed containers. I keep yogurts for years as part of my experiments and the only time you see the bloat is when your refrig is no longer a cooling unit but actually turned into a fermenter.

All the foods indicate that your refrig temperature is swinging to warm cycles and allowing beasties to grow.
posted by jadepearl at 10:26 AM on August 25, 2009

it seemed like it was always running

The coils may need a good cleaning. I vacuumed out my fridge's coil compartment a couple of weeks ago and it has made a big difference in how often it turns on. Dirty means inefficient. I was lazy. I apologize for the neglect, refrigerator. It won't happen again.
posted by sageleaf at 10:31 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do you use a newfangled frost-free fridge with an auto-defrost cycle? Some part of the system (sensor? thermostat? timer?) may be defective and it may be defrosting more often than usual, resulting in a lot of warm periods inside your refrigerator.
posted by Lush at 10:38 AM on August 25, 2009

Are you sure that the power is not going out during the day while you are out? Is there a nearby construction project?
posted by Mr. Yuck at 1:27 PM on August 25, 2009

I've heard that bottle-brushes are good for cleaning around fridge coils, so if you have one, use it. They're cheap.

Also, pick up a thermometer for your fridge. If it's not between 35-40 degrees, it's too warm. If you can't adjust it to work, it's time to buy a new fridge. Sorry.
posted by mccarty.tim at 1:32 PM on August 25, 2009

and pulling the fridge out from the wall a couple of feet, made it work again

This, the poor performance of your ice-maker, and the spoilage beginning around the time your adjusted the thermostat, all point to a too-warm fridge. At least part of the problem is likely to be insufficient air flow over the coils behind the fridge. I'd pull it out and vacuum the coils, restore the dial setting to what it was if you remember, and get a thermometer in there to find the right setting. If you can't adjust it to keep below 40F, then yeah, it might be time for a new one, but there's enough other plausible - and fixable - reasons for the trouble that I think you can be optimistic about its general health.
posted by TruncatedTiller at 4:05 PM on August 25, 2009

Response by poster: Interesting . . . I've read online that the ice maker stopping may be because the little pipe that feeds water in gets frozen.

I've heard about cleaning the coils, etc., but don't have one of those little vacuum cleaners to do it, and the handheld attachment for my floor vacuum doesn't seem to want to work. Eh, I'll figure something out, I guess. I have this weird fear that I might run into a dead mouse or bugs back there. (Yeah, I'm a big baby.)

Thanks to everyone . . . snickerdoodle, I'd be interested in hearing more about this issue, too . . .
posted by CommonSense at 4:29 PM on August 25, 2009

You didn't say whether your freezer is working fine (aside from the icemaker), so I assume that it is. If the freezer is fine but the fridge is warm, you know that the actual heat-removal mechanics are working. But many (most?) fridges depend on a flow of cold air from the freezer, and this airway needs to be kept open. Sometimes it has a little fan. Look to see if there are any vents along the top of the fridge compartment, especially in the rear (sometimes it's combined with the control/light mechanism). You may find that instead of a hole you have a little bead of ice. The solution is to empty and defrost the freezer. With airflow restored, the fridge will stay cool again.

Also try the "dollar bill" test on your fridge door. First, examine the seal for any loose or cracked sections. It doesn't take much! If all are intact, use a dollar bill to test the seal by closing the door on it, then seeing how much force you need to pull the bill out from between the door seal and the fridge frame. Do this at points around the door. If you find a big gap anywhere the gasket may need replacing ($50-100, you can do this yourself).

Finally, if both fridge and freezer are exhibiting similar temperature struggles, then you may have a dead timer, dead condenser, or dead compressor (usually the latter is pretty much obvious -- no cold at all). These are replaceable but usually you want a technician to do it. It's cheaper than a new fridge, unless yours is really old, in which case a new Energy Star model might be worth looking into.
posted by dhartung at 10:05 PM on August 25, 2009

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