Can I eat this? Boiled chicken edition
February 13, 2019 4:20 AM   Subscribe

Actually, I was going to ask if I could eat boiled chicken breast left out overnight for 7 hours, but simple searching pointed me here, so I'll just toss it. However, the comments made me really wonder... Every day I bring in various sealed foods, which I just leave sit on my desk from when I take it out of the fridge, to when I eat it, always at least 4.5 hours later, but sometimes 6 or 7 hours later.

For example, today from the fridge I have hard boiled eggs, a Naked Green Machine, single Dannon yogurt, and leftover ground turkey spaghetti in a sealed Tupperware container (which sat in the pan for probably 2 hours before the fridge) sitting on my desk. Other examples would include turkey baloney and cheese sandwich, various "salad" sandwiches, egg, tuna, chicken, etc, all with mayo, baked potatoes... really, just anything, but always sealed. I've done this for years. Am I just flirting with disaster?
posted by Pig Tail Orchestra to Food & Drink (27 answers total)
Regarding mayo: it's a myth that it's dangerous, mayo has so much acid in it that bacteria die quickly.

One thing about bacteria: it's not just that the item is at room temperature; bacteria like the following:
  • Things it has access to (not sealed items)
  • Wet things
  • things without preservatives, (preservatives include high sugar, high salt, and acids)
The 'preservatives' part goes with the 'wet things' because simple preservatives are just dessicants that kill bacteria by drying it out.

Of the things you listed, I'd say the leftover spaghetti is the most "risky" -- wet, was open to the air a while before being put into a sealed package, lots of nooks and crannies, and not a lot of things to kill bacteria (the acid from the sauce is probably the most helpful). The rest are going to be pretty safe for your lunch, particularly the factory-sealed products that are likely pasteurized and/or have preservatives for storage purposes.
posted by AzraelBrown at 4:35 AM on February 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Short answer: Yes this is risky, your foods are sitting in a "danger zone" of temperature for a significant length of time. Hard to predict the exact level of increased risk, it will vary from case to case, but this is certainly not recommended practice.

More realistic answer: There are a variety of household/person-specific standards on how long food can be safely left out of the fridge. Lots of cases of even medium-risk will turn out just fine (maybe a mild stomach upset that you don't even attribute to the food, maybe nothing). Some of your examples I would feel fine about personally (yogurt), others I would not (egg salad). A general rule of 4-ish hours outside of the fridge for most lunch items, assuming you don't work in a, that seems okay enough, though how much effort would it be to invest in an insulated lunch bag and one ice pack?

I would not be comfortable with 6 or 7 hours at room temp for anything with meat or dairy, personally.
posted by Bebo at 4:36 AM on February 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

Pure anecdata, but I do this sort of thing every day, and I'm not dead yet. Yesterday it was store-bought rotisserie chicken (which is probably sketchy to begin with), potatoes au gratin, and roasted broccoli; sat on my desk for probably 6 hours before I ate it. Hell, I've even taken something to work, let it sit on my desk all day, been too busy to eat lunch, put it back in the fridge at home at night, and eaten it the next day.

*However*, the part of me that was ServSafe certified once upon a time says no, no, no, don't do this, don't eat it, you're not just flirting with disaster you're actively seducing it.
posted by okayokayigive at 4:36 AM on February 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

The Dannon yogurt is going to be the safest thing on that list. Being made of bacteria, it's already spoiled! :D
posted by sexyrobot at 4:38 AM on February 13, 2019

A few items:
- A "sealed" tupperware protects you against nothing (unless you autoclaved that tupperware and its contents before putting it away).
- Some of the foods you describe leaving out are indeed quite risky, especially something like a "salad" sandwich or ground meat leftovers that you prepared yourself, with ample opportunity for bacteria to be introduced before you let it sit in the optimal conditions for bacterial reproduction.
- The solution is simple: get some kind of lunch bag with a built-in ice pack. It's easy, relatively cheap, and keeps your food cold enough for the time period you're dealing with.
posted by ourobouros at 4:41 AM on February 13, 2019 [11 favorites]

People have done this kind of thing all down the long history of humans since we first practiced agriculture. Cooking or packing food and leaving it for a few hours between cooking or packing and eating is entirely normal, the practice of the majority, even now. What do you think working people have eaten for their noonday meals in societies where refrigeration is not available?

Recommendations made by the government are built around the needs of people who serve mass amounts of food, usually as cheaply as possible, to a diverse population. They are meant to be easily understood and easily enforceable (not that we have much enforcement) and to leave no grey areas. You don't want your discount all you can eat buffet figuring that maybe the chicken hasn't been at room temperature for two hours quite yet because they are not totally sure when it got put on the counter. You don't want your hospitals serving ill and immunocompromised people food that is less than the safest.

Looking at recommendations made by the government and saying "these match point for point to diverse small instances of food safety" is like looking at the usability standards that the CDC uses for its website, which needs to be available to every user regardless of vision and internet speed, and saying "there is never a reason that anyone should ever design a website differently for any purpose of art, archiving or commerce, and in fact, deviating from the CDC's web design practices is actively harmful".
posted by Frowner at 4:58 AM on February 13, 2019 [24 favorites]

Keep in mind the danger zone rule was invented to be something that anyone could apply using no other knowledge skill or intelligence, and would virtually guarantee food safety, even for people with poor digestion and compromised immune systems. In other words, it’s supposed to be idiot proof.

In the real world, you have all kinds of extra info. Including the fact that you’ve done this thousands of times with no ill effect.

You ingest zillions of bacteria every day, you have zillions living inside you and all over your skin. What’s keeping you safe is mostly your immune system, not lack of exposure or living in autoclaved rooms.

Finally, it’s not really disasterous for most people to eat some bad spaghetti. You know yourself better than we do, but you’re almost certainly not going keel over and die. The (by far!) most common effect would be a few rushed trips to the bathroom. While not pleasant, that’s not what I personally consider a disaster, YMMV.

The real dangers of food-borne illness come from industrial contamination (listeria, e. coli, salmonella, etc.), and that’s completely independent of eating a room temp lunch.

On preview: Everything Frowner said too.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:01 AM on February 13, 2019 [10 favorites]

People who lived in pre-refrigeration times did not eat products like mass-produced shell eggs or ground meat, which are prone to contamination. They also (very cleverly) figured out portable meals that were a bit safer to store than the types of things that we're accustomed to in an age of plentiful refrigeration. It's actually really interesting to learn about all the historical food preservation techniques people used -- from pemmican to Cornish pasties to hard cheeses, many food traditions incorporate really interesting (and delicious) ways to reduce the risk of dangerous bacterial growth and make food more portable.

One way to pack safer lunches might be to use some of those same historic techniques and recipes. If you pack a lunch made up of some sourdough bread, a chunk of hard cheese, and a bit of salami -- well then, you're doing as our ancestors did and you'll most likely be fine. All those foods have built-in protections against harmful bacterial contamination. On the other hand, if you are taking some mass-produced ground meat, cooking it, and then packing it into a plastic container -- that's not really comparable, and you'd be well advised to think about the food safety implications of what you're doing.
posted by ourobouros at 5:10 AM on February 13, 2019 [16 favorites]

Think of every child from age 5 to 18 with their brown-bagged tuna salad or turkey and cheese sandwiches waiting for lunch in their cubby or locker. ... maybe now some parents give their kids insulated lunch boxes with ice packs, but there hasn't been a mass outbreak of illness among the others... Perhaps it's not 100% safe but neither is touching a public doorknob or an ATM machine. And as said above, factory farm and industrial-level food safety issues are far more terrifying.
posted by nantucket at 5:14 AM on February 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I do this every day and am not dead yet. YMMV.
posted by roshy at 5:39 AM on February 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I do not do this -- I use the office fridge (if available) or an insulated cooler with ice packs. But several of my coworkers do this out of preference -- they like having their food warm to room temperature rather than chilled. They do this even with things that push all the "Danger Will Robinson!" warnings, and as far as I know they've never suffered any ill effects.

My take is that this takes you close to the edge of the food safety limitations, but generally still within them -- it takes time for your food to warm up, so the total time it is sitting petri-dish-warm is more limited. That would be different if you worked in a really hot building, or if you ate your lunch hours later.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:33 AM on February 13, 2019

As others are saying, I think it helps to look at smaller categories than just "food." Some food is absolutely ok left out (e.g., apples on a counter). Some food is really risky left out (e.g., chicken broth at room temperature for days). For me, non-cured meats (including broths) are what I most worry about. I also bring a lot of vegan or vegetarian grain- or bean-based salads for lunch, and I don't worry as much about those. Paying attention to the types of food helps me think about what the actual risks are rather than feeling paranoid.
posted by lazuli at 6:40 AM on February 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I always intend to use the office fridge, but you know how it is. I come in, set my lunch on my desk, and then I have to use the bathroom, or go to a meeting, or whatever, and before you know it, it's lunchtime and my lunch has been sitting there for several hours. Add me to the chorus of "I do this every day". It's probably not ideal, but I never notice any side effects, and I'm the kind of person who notices side effects from food.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:44 AM on February 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

Whatever your level of risk, you can lower it by keeping the cold things colder and the hot things hotter. I think the cold packs that come with a kid's lunchbox are too small to make much of a difference. I'm pretty sure some people think the preservatives in the turkey baloney are a greater risk to your long term health than bacteria are to your short term health.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:28 AM on February 13, 2019 [2 favorites]

People have done this kind of thing all down the long history of humans since we first practiced agriculture.

Yes, and some of them got sick and some of them died because of doing this kind of thing. The reality, of course, is that this sort of thing is relatively low risk. People do it for years and nothing bad happens. Until it does. If someone has ready access to refrigeration, it seems unnecessarily risky not to take advantage of it. Otherwise, I'd recommend choosing foods that are less risky, such as hard salami, dense cheeses, etc. rather than, e.g., mayonnaise-based salads, liquids, ground meat, etc.
posted by slkinsey at 7:40 AM on February 13, 2019 [6 favorites]

Random things I believe about food safety
Bologna is full of salt and preservatives that help it stay safe a bit longer. Its also full of nitrates and quite bad for you.
Tomato sauce is quite acid.
Chicken is especially dangerous because salmonella is endemic in American poultry. Cooked chicken is much safer than uncooked, so rotisserie chicken is okay, but buy it when it's within a couple hours of cooked; many stores label it.
In my experience, fish goes bad pretty quickly, shellfish goes bad in a flash.
Raw shellfish is especially dangerous because e. coli is endemic in shellfish.
Some bacteria produce toxins that make you ill, so even some re-heated foods may be unsafe.
Vegetable like romaine lettuce may be grown in locations where there is runoff from places with animals, and if you wash romaine enough to get it clean, it's not recognizable as lettuce. This is disturbing because I really like salad.
Promptly covering coked food helps.

I would still eat my tuna sandwich after 6 hours. But I've had severe food poisoning (undercooked steak) and it's genuinely dangerous. I was really ill for 3 days, and not well for at least a month. So why take the risk of a serious illness? I save single serving beverage bottles from iced tea or whatever, wash, fill with water, freeze. I put one in my lunch bag. My food is safer, and I have cold water. Your freezer will work better if it's pretty full, so its win:win, fill it with bottles of water.
posted by theora55 at 7:46 AM on February 13, 2019

I personally find it far more likely that my office fridge will kill me than failing to refrigerate food.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:39 AM on February 13, 2019

I play very fast and loose with "can I eat this?" but even I feel a little more reassured when my lunch is packed primarily of cold items (straight from the fridge, if not freezer, as I meal prep and freeze a lot of lunch meals) plus an ice pack if I don't have a block of frozen lunch in there. I usually pack extra canned drinks in my lunchbag anyway, so the ice pack keeps them at a decent temperature if nothing else. It's an easy thing to do that probably saves me from myself every now and then.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:59 AM on February 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Anecdata: Last week I ate six-day-old crawfish etouffe that had spent a day in my approximately-but-not-quite fridge-temp car and cooked seafood that sat in its takeaway containers on a table at the bar for several hours before I took it home and left it in the fridge for a couple days. I was fine. I eat things like this all the time. I would have eaten the shredded chicken on the counter from the other question with barely a second thought. I have gotten food poisoning exactly once, from a raw oyster at a nice restaurant, and frankly that's the risk you take eating raw oysters and I accept that.

However, I don't serve my sketchy leftovers to other people and I can't in good conscience recommend other folks eat like I do. I want to be a good host, and I don't want to make someone sick on the off-chance something is actually bad or they don't have a junkyard-dog constitution.
posted by momus_window at 9:05 AM on February 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think you are really risking food poisoning.

I bring homemade lunch to work every day. About five years ago, I came to work on MLK Day to catch up when no one else was in the office. I brought my homemade chicken korma, not realizing that the break room would be locked, so I had no access to a fridge. "No problem!" I thought and left it on my desk. "I'm tough! I never get stomach aches! I eat super spicy food! I eat organ meat and sometimes weird animals!"

I ate the chicken korma for lunch with it having been out for probably five or so hours. A few hours after lunch, I started running a fever. For the next three days, my body tried to turn itself inside out. Never again. I bought my own fridge for my office and have discarded food on the rare times I have gotten to work and run right into a meeting without putting my food up.
posted by Slothrop at 9:19 AM on February 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

"Can I eat it," is a matter of weighing odds and potential costs. The answer is probably "yes," but do you really want to roll those dice when there's no critical hits, only fumbles?
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 10:40 AM on February 13, 2019

Well, most of the dice rolls will be "delicious meal" so who needs the critical hit? I think the time to be overly or regular cautious about eating leftovers is if you're serving it to other people, particularly the old or very young. Otherwise, you'll probably be fine, worst that can happen is several days of disgusting pain or death but the main thing you stand to lose is lunch and the starving children who are punished every time you waste food.
posted by GoblinHoney at 10:45 AM on February 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hello meat bag of mostly water living on land and needing fresh water and of slighly alkaline composition. The bad things you're trying to avoid are nuked by your immune system but love dead meat bags of mostly water and alkaline just like you, free food that doesn't fight back. Then they spew toxic waste.

If you bump up the salinity, or the acidity, or remove the available water... those bad things have a hard time living even on that dead meat. Preservatives. Or at least retardants to growth so that within say 12 hours there's not going to be enough of them that survived on that dead meat to actually harm you.

When some evil cell thing of mostly water hits up against a concentrated salty solution osmotic changes happen and the water is pulled out of that little cell and the salty goes in and the poor little cell is all sick and dying itself. Sugar does about the same, dessication. Acid works approximately the same way but more chemically reaction wise. The poor little bad cell can't survive and thrive enough in that 12-ish hour period to do much to your living system and stomach acid. eww.

It's only the few things contamination wise that are relatively immune to these countermeasures but that keeping it cold will keep them at bay (at least a little). And if you're chicken or salad is all e.coli or salmonella you're probably screwed either way, but maybe a bit less if the food is kept cold or hot.

So plainly cooked chicken is sorta bad. Chicken slathered in mayo (acidic) not so much. Chicken in teriyaki sauce (soy sauce (salt), mirin (alcohol/sugar), and more sugar) is pretty hostile enough to the little bad cells so it would last much longer before I'd worry about it. (All of that stuff sits in the cabinet at room temperature for like ever.

I don't much worry about non-meat things. That's pretty much the contaminated upstream sort of thing. Only worry about the things that like meat/protein that's from the same environment that you exist in. They mostly have to be happy to live there to become populous enough to be of danger to you either themselves or their toxic waste byproducts. aka poo.
posted by zengargoyle at 11:33 AM on February 13, 2019

It's not just meat -- raw produce can also be a serious risk for foodborne illness (i.e. the recent E. coli outbreak traced to romaine lettuce). Part of what makes chicken salad risky is the raw celery bits that are generally mixed into it.

The FDA's Bad Bug Book (pdf) has some really great info about foodborne illness and how to prevent it. Page 3 of that link has a very good, common-sense summary of basic food safety precautions for the general public. They're pretty straightforward and not at all unreasonable:
- Wash hands when preparing food
- Wash raw fruits & veggies
- Cook foods to proper temps
- Keep raw & cooked foods separate
- Refrigerate food at 40°F as soon as possible after it’s cooked

It also summarizes the why:
"Here are a few examples of why following all of these steps is important. Some types of bacteria form
spores that aren’t killed by cooking. Spores are a survival mode in which those bacteria make an
inactive form that can live without nutrition and that develops very tough protection against the outside
world. After cooking, the spores may change and grow into bacteria, when the food cools down.
Refrigerating food quickly after cooking can help keep the bacteria from multiplying. On the other hand,
cooking does kill most harmful bacteria. Cooking is especially important when a pathogen is hard to
wash off of a particular kind of food, or if a bacterium can grow at refrigerator temperatures, as is true
of Listeria monocytogenes and Yersinia enterocolitica."
It's not that different from wearing a seatbelt in a car. Sure, lots of people have driven in cars without seatbelts and lived to tell the tale. However, the risks (serious injury, death) are serious enough to warrant taking some basic, not-that-challenging precautions. That's just as true for foodborne illness as it is for car crashes.

It might be weird that I find the Bad Bug Book fun to read. It's kind of fun to read.
posted by ourobouros at 2:02 PM on February 13, 2019

If chicken salad has E. coli in it then it doesn’t really matter how you handle it, it’s got dangerous pathogens in it no matter how long it’s been in or out of the fridge or danger zone.

This question is about refrigeration of lunch, and for these purposes, pathogens that arrived with the food due to contamination prior to purchase just aren’t relevant at all. Danger zone considerations assume the food is not already contaminated with deadly pathogens. If it is, it doesn’t really matter if the food has been out of the fridge one hour or four.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:21 PM on February 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I feel like the most cavalier of you have either forgotten or never had serious food poisoning. It is incredibly miserable and feels like dying and you are going to feel like a massive idiot if you go through it because you were too stubborn to take an easy precaution.

Put your food away or get an ice pack. If you hesitate to "waste" something dodgy ask yourself what throwing it away costs in comparison to an ER visit because you can't stop vomiting and shitting yourself and are dangerously dehydrated.
posted by emjaybee at 5:24 PM on February 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

It's silly but I've just always thought of food as "good" or has turned "bad". That's obviously not true, and it may be that some small stomach ache was caused by leaving food out, and I had never attributed the two as causal. I'm starting to use the fridge going forward, thanks!
posted by Pig Tail Orchestra at 9:24 AM on February 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

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