Frozen food safety confusion causing waste, watchdog warns

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One third of all food produced is wasted, the UN estimates

Misconceptions about frozen food are contributing to the seven million tonnes of waste thrown out by UK households every year, the Food Standards Agency says.

Of the 1,500 people it surveyed, 43% wrongly thought food could only be frozen on the day it was bought, suggesting confusion over food safety.

Some 38% incorrectly said food could become unsafe to eat in the freezer.

In fact, "the freezer is like a pause button", the FSA's Steve Wearne said.

Guidance published by the agency, which is responsible for food safety and food hygiene across the UK, says food can be safely frozen at any time up to its "use by" date.

Although the taste or texture of the food can deteriorate over time due to ice crystal damage, frozen food will keep indefinitely, it says.

Once defrosted, food will spoil in the same way as if it were fresh, it advises.

Image source, PA

When is it safe to freeze food?

  • Most types of bacteria survive freezing, but become inactive while frozen due to the low temperature and lack of available water. Frozen food will, therefore, keep indefinitely, although the taste or texture of the food can deteriorate over time due to ice crystal damage.
  • As a rule of thumb, the warmer the temperature, the more active bacteria are. It is recommended to defrost food slowly and safely, preferably overnight in the refrigerator, to reduce the risk of harmful bacteria growing in the food.
  • Once defrosted, food will spoil in the same way as if it were fresh, so handle defrosted foods in the same way as you would raw. Defrosted food can be stored in the fridge for up to 24 hours before it needs to be cooked or thrown away.
  • Refrozen food has a higher risk of causing food poisoning because when food is re-thawed, bacteria can multiply rapidly. However, if you cook defrosted food - for example turning defrosted chicken into a chicken curry - harmful bugs will be killed off, making it safe to refreeze.

According to the FSA's research, 38% of people mistakenly thought it was dangerous to refreeze meat after it had been cooked.

Almost a quarter, 23%, said they would never freeze meat that was cooked after defrosting, with 73% of those citing worries about food poisoning.

More than two thirds, 68%, had thrown food away in the past month, mainly bread (36%), fruit (31%), vegetables (31%) and leftover meals (22%).

Households in the UK waste the equivalent of about six meals a week on average, the FSA said.

'Pause button'

Guidance provided to the food industry on date marking of food is being reviewed by officials from the FSA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap).

They will also look at expanding guidelines to cover food storage and freezing advice for consumers.

"The freezer is like a pause button, so you can freeze foods right up to the 'use by' date," FSA policy director Mr Wearne said.

"While food is kept safe in the freezer, it's the quality that deteriorates over time, so we recommend eating it within three to six months and checking for any freezing instructions on the packaging."

"Once defrosted, the pause button is off, so defrost food as and when you need it and eat it within 24 hours of it being fully defrosted."

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