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What happens if you eat old freezer food?

Eating old freezer food can be risky. Freezing food slows down bacteria growth but does not necessarily kill bacteria. So if food has been in the freezer too long, bacteria could have grown to dangerous levels. There are also risks of texture and flavor changes. So knowing how long different foods can stay frozen can help avoid potential foodborne illnesses.

How long can frozen foods be kept before going bad?

The FDA recommends the following freezer storage times for frozen foods:

Food Freezer Storage Life
Beef, pork, lamb, and veal steaks, chops, or roasts 4-12 months
Chicken or turkey, whole 12 months
Chicken or turkey, parts 9 months
Fish and shellfish 3-6 months
Ham, hotdogs, bacon 1-2 months
Casseroles, soups, stews 2-3 months
Pizza 1-2 months
Cookie dough or baked goods 2-3 months

The sooner frozen foods are eaten after thawing, the better quality they will be. Always rely on your senses. If food smells, looks, or tastes bad after thawing, it should be thrown out.

What bacteria grow on frozen food over time?

The main bacteria of concern in frozen foods are:

  • Listeria – Can grow at refrigerator temps and causes listeriosis
  • Salmonella – Causes salmonellosis
  • E. coli – Causes gastrointestinal illness
  • Campylobacter – Causes campylobacteriosis

Listeria is most likely to grow in the freezer over time. It can grow and multiply slowly at temperatures as low as 37°F. Other bacteria grow more rapidly at higher temperatures above 40°F. Maintaining a freezer at 0°F or below keeps most bacteria from multiplying.

L. monocytogenes

Listeria monocytogenes is a bacteria that can grow slowly at refrigerator temperatures. It causes the illness listeriosis when ingested. Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, nausea, and diarrhea. It primarily affects the elderly, pregnant women, newborns, and those with compromised immune systems.

Listeria is killed by cooking foods thoroughly to 165°F. However, it can be problematic in ready-to-eat foods stored over a long time in the freezer.


Salmonella is commonly found in raw chicken. It typically does not grow at freezing temperatures. However, if chicken has been stored for many months in the freezer, any Salmonella present could grow to higher numbers after thawing.

Proper cooking should kill any Salmonella. But cross-contamination becomes a concern from juices of old, thawed chicken spreading bacteria around the kitchen.

E. coli

E. coli is found commonly in raw meat products. Ground beef is a common source of pathogenic E. coli like O157:H7. E. coli prefers warmer temperatures and does not grow well at freezing. But over longer storage periods E. coli levels could slowly rise.


Campylobacter is also found commonly in raw poultry. It grows best at warmer temperatures and does not thrive in freezing. But over many months, some growth could occur leading to higher levels. As with Salmonella, old chicken could also cross-contaminate after thawing.

So the general guidance is the longer raw meat or poultry is frozen, the greater risk of bacterial growth over time, especially from Listeria. The increase may be small, but older freezer foods should be handled carefully.

What are signs of spoiled frozen foods?

Here are some signs that frozen foods may be spoiled and should be discarded:

  • Unusual odor, color change, or slimy texture
  • Ice crystals inside package or frost burn
  • Freezer burn like dried, white spots on meat or fish
  • Package is torn or has signs of damage
  • Expiration date is passed

Some foods may simply not taste as good after prolonged freezing but still be safe. Quality loss happens more quickly in fruits, vegetables, and prepared foods like casseroles. Taste a small amount after thawing if uncertain.

What happens if you eat spoiled frozen foods?

Eating spoiled frozen foods that contain dangerous levels of bacteria could lead to food poisoning. Symptoms usually come on rapidly within hours or days after exposure.

Common symptoms

  • Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain, cramps
  • Fever
  • Headache

Most food poisoning cases resolve on their own. But severe cases require medical treatment for dehydration. And certain high risk groups could develop life-threatening conditions if the right bacteria are involved.

High risk groups

  • Older adults
  • Pregnant women
  • Children under age 5
  • Those with weakened immune systems

Listeriosis from Listeria and E. coli O157:H7 are of greatest concern for high risk groups. Listeria can lead to meningitis, miscarriage, premature birth, or stillbirth. E. coli O157:H7 causes hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) that can lead to kidney failure.

Bacteria Possible complications
Salmonella Bacteremia
E. coli HUS, kidney failure
Listeria Meningitis, miscarriage, stillbirth
Campylobacter Guillain-Barré syndrome

Call your doctor if food poisoning symptoms do not improve after 1-2 days. Seek prompt medical care for any severe symptoms like bloody stools, prolonged vomiting, high fever, signs of dehydration, or neurological problems.

How to prevent illness from eating old freezer foods

Here are some tips to keep frozen foods safer and prevent foodborne illness:

  • Label packages with date stored and use within recommended time
  • Store at 0°F or below and avoid temperature fluctuations
  • Use oldest foods first and don’t overload freezer
  • Discard foods past use by date or with signs of spoilage
  • Keep appliance clean and organize for visibility
  • Defrost foods properly in fridge, microwave, or cold water
  • Never thaw at room temperature
  • Cook defrosted foods immediately until steaming hot

Avoid the danger zone

When thawing and handling raw meats, keep foods out of the “danger zone” between 40-140°F when bacteria can grow rapidly. Defrost in the refrigerator, cold water, or the microwave then cook immediately.

Prevent cross-contamination

Prevent bacterial spread by keeping raw meats/juices away from ready-to-eat foods. Use separate cutting boards and wash all surfaces, utensils, and hands that touch raw meat before touching other foods.


Freezing food prevents bacterial growth but does not necessarily kill bacteria already present. So eating freezer-stored foods past recommended storage times could make you sick. Listeria is most concerning. Use proper freezing, thawing, and cooking practices to stay safe. When in doubt, remember the motto: “When hot, keep it hot. When cold, keep it cold.” Follow this and other food safety rules to avoid problems with old freezer foods.