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Food safety (soup left out overnight)

Dec 2011

We recently made soup late in the evening, but forgot to put it in the refrigerator before bed. My partner and I disagree whether to throw it out. The specifics:
-- was extremely hot at bedtime
-- was down to 80 degrees F when I found it in the morning
-- contained meat (chicken italian sausage)
-- lid was left on (my partner believes that this would prevent bacteria getting in!)
-- refrigerated it immediately when found it, and within 24 hours put it in the freezer (because we couldn't come to agreement) I see lots of personal opinions on the web that support both of our opinions, but am hoping to get a more definitive/scientific answer somewhere. (e.g. is there a food safety expert to call?) concerned parent

Harold McGee's your man. He's a food scientist and he recently wrote an article on this topic for the New York Times. It's reproduced on his website at: (He uses soup as an example for discussing food safety in this article and if it's a scientific answer you're after, your partner will learn from this piece that it's not an issue of bacteria ''falling in'' to the pot.) McGee is considered the go-to guy on food science by basically all modern chefs.

Also, from personal experience, a scientific answer may not be enough to satisfy your partner. My husband grew up in a house with less-than-great food safety practices, and he still relies on the: I grew up that way and I didn't die argument.

Good luck and stay healthy. eating safe

Toss it. That is several hours in the temperature ''danger zone'' where bacteria grow the best (see the USDA guidelines here

You can also call their hotline at 1-888-674-6854). Covering it doesn't make a difference --- the bacteria are already there. And at 80+F degrees for several hours they will have proliferated like mad. That's basically an incubator!

Now I find some of the USDA advice overkill (i.e. some of the meat cooking temps) but I got food poisoning about two years ago from some chicken that had been out too long and it was the most miserable experience of my life (I had to be hospitalized, was 20 weeks pregnant, and in a foreign country). After that I adopted the position of when in doubt about food, toss. Because nothing is worth that experience again. It's soup. You can make more. don't risk it

For commercial food service in California, the rule is that the food must be cooled from 135 degrees to 41 degrees within six hours, in order that bacteria are not given too much time to multiply. That's probably the only ''official'' rule you can get. certified food handler

Ha, I bet you'll get responses all over the map for this. The official USDA position--they have a website you can refer to, google USDA food safety for a conservative official opinion--would be no, it's been left out for over 2 hours at hot/warm temperature and it contains meat, making it a good environment for bacteria to grow in. And no I don't think a lid would keep bacteria out. However, that said, I come down on your partner's side. It's winter, so it's been sitting at cool room temp (although you say 80B0 in the morning? I am kinda surprised), and it's cured meat, and it's soup, which has simmered for a long time to kill whatever bacteria might originally have been present. I personally would feel comfortable reheating it and simmering it at a medium heat for a nice little spell and eating it. I might not give it to my kid, at least not until 8-10 hours after I had eaten it to test it out, since kids are more susceptible to food poisoning than adults, but I would eat it. I think Americans are a little nutso about food safety--I say this as an American and as a cooking editor with experience living abroad in other first-world countries. To sum up: Don't eat the soup if you don't want, and feel free to draw the line at giving it to your kids, but don't give your partner a hard time if he wants to give it a go. Let him be the guinea pig! -Not the soup nazi

It's fine. that soup won't kill you. Yes, you'll hear scientific data about how bacteria grows so quickly (even with a lid on it!), but whatever. Think of all the millions of people in the world that make due without our rigid food safety laws and are just fine. But if you're grossed out by the thought of it, then nothing will convince you otherwise, and you won't be enjoying that soup anyway. leslie

I've done this often when I make soup at night and it's too hot to put in the fridge, or I want the flavors to steep. It's usually still pretty warm in the AM, and I either heat it up again (killing any critters that might be lingering) or heat it again before we eat it. So sickness, even with meat. I bet you'll get all kinds of varying opinions to this. If it's not sitting in the sun, and it's not eggs or mayo, I don't worry too much, within reason. anon

The rule is that food shouldn't be left out at room temperature (41-135 degrees). There is a ''super danger zone'' that I can't recall but is on the upper end of that spectrum. That is, in the warmer end of the danger zone, bacteria multiply especially quickly.

That said, many, many people have eaten food that doesn't comply with restaurant food service standards and lived to tell the tale. The standards are in place because they are to ensure safety. If you cooked your poultry to what the USDA recommends, you'd always have dry meat.

I think the answer is that you probably could have reboiled the soup and eaten it IF it tasted ok (I think some would disagree, but I think it depends...), but overnight on a warm night is pushing it, so it would be safe to throw it out too. If you were in a restaurant, it would of course be thrown out. ex-culinary professional

The Center For Disease Control has many amusing and useful articles and bits of info (shoot, they have a whole blog/web site devoted to) food-borne illnesses. Scientific. Experts. They work for you, too.

Here's a start:

That soup is not safe. Even if re-heated, many bacteria produce toxins that are not destroyed by heat. 80 degrees is the ideal environment for bacteria to thrive and multiply. One of the worst food-borne illnesses is Bacillus cereus. It grows on grains that have been heated and then improperly stored. It's spore-forming. It would take a lot of heat to kill the spores. When in doubt, throw it out. MG ------------------------------------------ Have you ever had food poisoning? I suspect not, or you'd be throwing it out.

Maybe do this thought experiment -- you throw a pair of dice. If you get double sixes, you'll spend the next 12 hours throwing up and having diarrhea. Do you want to throw those dice?

''Remember the danger zone: 41B: F - 135B: F. Potentially hazardous foods exposed to this temperature range for a cumulative total of more than 4 hours are not safe to eat.'' This is the standard food safety rule. food professional

Well, leaving the lid on actually does keep the bugs out. If the pot was kept covered except while serving, probably very few bugs got in. But if it was uncovered for more than a couple of minutes, there are plenty of bugs in there. However, if if it was boiled with a lid on after dinner and then left out, it was probably essentially sterile. Before refrigerators, this is how people saved food. I would not tell you that you can eat it or you shouldn't. But in my house, I can tell you, we commonly heat things with a lid on and leave them on the stove to eat the next day. Some people say that heating on the stove uses less energy than cooling in the fridge. But I don't really know. anon

We did this once, with a homemade chicken soup. The next day we boiled the heck out of it and then ate it with gusto. No sickness. I'm sure you could do the same. Non-germphobic mom

We usually leave our soup out overnight before refrigerating it in the morning (simply because it doesn't usually cool down before we turn into bed and you should generally let food cool down naturally before refrigerating it). We've never been poisoned

To be sure, check to make sure there is no surface bubbling (which could indicate that it has spoiled) and make sure that you fully reheat it (preferably bringing it to a boil). You'll be fine. Soup lover

Hi, We regularly eat food that has been left out overnight, even on warm nights and including meat. I would recommend bringing it to a boil first, then eating it.

On the other hand, if it makes you uncomfortable, the person who thinks it's OK to eat could eat it and the other person could decide not to eat it. Cynthia

If you wanted to be safe you could just recook the soup. Boil it for awhile and it will kill any bacteria that may have grown. Refuse to Waste Food

I would eat it, after boiling first. And reboil any leftovers before storing.

I know families who leave food (esp soup or really saucy dishes w/ meat) on the stove all day &/or over night; it's cultural. They make sure to bring it to a boil after any utensil has touched it when it won't be eaten for a while, and reboil again prior to eating.

I've eaten it. We've had at least one pot of soup forgotten overnight. I ate it.

It's really about YOUR comfort level. If you are okay with it, you can eat it and your spouse can eat something else! I would eat it, but that's me.

Eat the soup already! I leave leftovers out overnight all the time and I've never had a problem. If it still smells fresh and it was only out for a night I'm sure it's fine. Bon appetite