Putting food back in the fridge safely after defrosting is an important part of preventing foodborne illness. There are some guidelines to follow to ensure defrosted food does not spend too much time in the “danger zone” between 40°F and 140°F when bacteria can multiply quickly.
Can I refreeze food once it has been defrosted?
Yes, it is possible to safely refreeze food that has been defrosted, but there are some important guidelines to follow:
- Never refreeze food that has been left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. This allows dangerous bacteria to grow.
- Refreeze defrosted food as soon as possible. The longer it sits in the fridge, the more chance bacteria has to multiply.
- Only refreeze food that still has ice crystals or is cold to the touch. Do not refreeze food that has thawed completely.
- Avoid refreezing foods like meat, poultry, fish, and seafood more than once. The quality deteriorates.
- Fruit and vegetables can generally be refrozen safely if they still taste and smell fresh.
- Defrosted bread products should not be refrozen. They will go stale quickly.
- Refrozen foods may lose some texture and moisture. It is best to use refrozen items in cooking rather than eating them raw.
The USDA recommends only refreezing food that has been defrosted in the fridge, not food left out at room temperature. And only refreeze if the food still contains ice crystals and feels cold to the touch.
How to safely defrost food
To safely defrost food and minimize the time it spends in the “danger zone”, follow these guidelines:
- Refrigerator: This is the safest method. Place food in the fridge in a container to catch any drips. Leave enough time for food to fully defrost – Fridge temperature should be 40°F or below.
- Cold water: Submerge food in cold water, changing water every 30 mins. Cook immediately after thawing.
- Microwave: Follow microwave instructions to defrost food. Cook immediately after thawing as some areas may become warm.
- Never leave food out at room temperature to defrost. Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40°F and 140°F.
How long can defrosted food sit in the fridge?
The FDA recommends using defrosted food as soon as possible, but provides these maximum storage times:
|Food Type||Max Time in Fridge after Defrosting|
|Beef, Veal, Lamb, Pork||1-2 days|
|Shellfish||Do not refreeze, cook immediately|
The sooner defrosted food is cooked or refrozen, the better. Do not store it any longer than necessary in the fridge.
What to look out for with defrosted food
When inspecting defrosted food, check:
- It has been stored at a safe fridge temperature below 40°F
- No longer has ice crystals – it is fully defrosted
- Has not developed an off odor, color change or slimy texture
- Has not exceeded maximum recommended fridge storage times
Discard any food with changes in appearance, smell or texture. Do not taste food to determine if it is spoiled.
How to store and handle defrosted food safely
- Contain any raw meat, poultry or fish so juices cannot drip and contaminate other food.
- Never refreeze defrosted food left out at room temperature.
- Refreeze as soon as possible after defrosting in the fridge.
- Follow “Use By” dates and the recommended fridge storage times.
- Marinate defrosted meats in the fridge, not on the counter.
- Cook defrosted food immediately and do not refreeze if it looks or smells off.
What types of food can become dangerous if frozen and defrosted incorrectly?
Any raw meat, poultry, fish or seafood carries the risk of being contaminated with dangerous bacteria if defrosting guidelines are not followed properly. This includes:
- Ground meats
- Fish fillets
Defrosting at room temperature or refreezing meats, fish and seafood after they have fully defrosted allows bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria to multiply to dangerous levels that can cause food poisoning when consumed. Always defrost in the fridge.
What are the signs of spoiled defrosted food?
Look out for these signs that indicate defrosted food has spoiled and should be discarded:
- Change in color: Graying, greening or unnatural colors
- Off odors: Sour, ammonia, yeasty or foul smell
- Change in texture: Very slimy or sticky
- Mold: Hairy or fuzzy growth
- Discoloration: Brown or black spots
- Gas bubbles: Bubbles indicate bacterial action
- Slimy packaging: Leakage or slime inside packaging
Never taste food to determine if it is spoiled. Discard at the first sign of spoilage.
What are the risk of eating spoiled defrosted food?
Eating spoiled defrosted food that contains pathogenic bacteria can cause foodborne illness with symptoms such as:
- Stomach cramps
In severe cases contaminated food can cause more serious complications:
- Bacteremia – bacteria entering the bloodstream
- Meningitis – inflammation of the brain and spinal cord lining
- Kidney failure
- Reactive arthritis – joint pain and swelling
- Guillain-Barre syndrome – neurological disorder
People with weakened immune systems such as the elderly, infants, pregnant women and those with chronic diseases are at greater risk of severe illness from spoiled defrosted food. Healthy adults may recover after a few unpleasant days.
How to prevent foodborne illness from defrosted food
Practice safe handling and storage of frozen and defrosted food:
- Defrost food in the fridge or cold water, never at room temp.
- Refreeze as soon as possible, within 1-2 days.
- Follow recommended fridge storage times after defrosting.
- Check for signs of spoilage before use.
- Discard food with an off odor, appearance or texture.
- Use defrosted meats within 1-2 days.
- Never refreeze raw meat or fish that has been left out.
- Prevent cross contamination by separating raw and cooked foods.
- Cook defrosted food thoroughly to proper temperatures.
Defrosting and refreezing food safely prevents the growth of dangerous bacteria that can cause foodborne illness. Thaw frozen food in the fridge, cold water or microwave, never at room temperature. Refreeze defrosted food as soon as possible. Store defrosted foods for limited times in the fridge and discard if there are any signs of spoilage. Following proper defrosting methods, storage times, avoiding cross contamination and cooking to proper temperatures can prevent foodborne illness from consuming refrozen foods.