Perishable food should spend no more than two hours at room temperature.

By Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist, NDSU Extension Service

“I had to go to the grocery store at 6 a.m. to pick up two more packages of deli turkey because somebody left the first two packages on the counter,” my husband noted one morning.

“Well, when in doubt, throw it out, right?” he added.

“Yes, that’s the rule,” I said.

I was happy I wasn’t that “someone” who left the perishable food on the counter overnight. I always feel bad about throwing away food.

Our daughter needed to bring snacks for an early morning school event, and she was assigned deli turkey and crackers. She and her dad stopped at the grocery store the night before to buy those items, then some distraction must have occurred. We certainly could not bring meat that had been on the counter for at least nine hours.

I wish they had left the meat in our vehicle overnight. The food would have been frozen by morning on a cold February night in Fargo.

However, I wasn’t pointing any fingers of blame at anyone. After all, I recently left a beverage in our vehicle and it froze and made a mess. Moms get distracted, too.

Bacteria and other germs grow quickly in perishable foods at room temperature. Perishable food usually is high in protein and moisture. Refrigerator or freezer storage slows or stops bacterial growth but doesn’t kill bacteria.

On average, bacteria double in number about every 20 minutes. A few bacteria can grow to thousands in a few hours. Sometimes, toxins (or poisons) that form can withstand cooking. Throwing the food becomes the only safe option.

Food safety specialists promote the two-hour rule: Perishable food should spend no more than two hours at room temperature.

Unfortunately, distractions happen in households, and sometimes we have to toss the food to avoid the potential costs and suffering associated with becoming ill. Foodborne illness sickens about one in six people in the U.S. each year.

In some cases, we can save the forgotten food. For example, if we left canned goods in a vehicle outside in a cold climate, the contents may freeze. Most of the time, the food will be OK to use after you do a little investigating.

Check the seams and seals on the cans. Are the seals and seams broken or cracked? Do you know the food’s history? Has it frozen, thawed and refrozen?

Thaw the canned food slowly in a refrigerator on a tray so you can see whether the can is leaking through tiny cracks invisible to the eye. After thawing, check if the can is bulging. This could indicate spoilage or, worst case, the presence of the toxin that causes botulism, a potentially deadly foodborne illness. Discard bulging cans where no person or animal will consume the contents.

However, if safe, use the accidentally frozen food as soon as possible because the quality may not be as good as it was originally. If the frozen canned food has a broken seal and has thawed on its own (in your garage or camper in the spring, for example), discard it.

The bottom line: Maintain food at the appropriate temperature for safety. Visit to explore the NDSU Extension Service food safety resources available for consumers. For more recipes and advice, see “The Family Table” at

Source: NDSU Prairie Fare