Food Safety for College Students

October 10, 2022

Christine Patrick, Clemson Extension Health & Nutrition Educator Agent

Is it safe to eat pizza that was left out overnight? Will I get sick if I eat a hamburger that is still pink inside? College students living away from home for the first time may be looking for answers to such questions that will not appear on any tests. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides answers to some of these frequently asked questions on food safety.

Several slices of pizza have been left out overnight. Is the pizza still safe to eat? No. Perishable food should never be away from refrigeration for more than two hours. This is true even if there are no meat products on the pizza. Foodborne bacteria that may be present in these foods grow fastest at temperatures between 40 and 140 °F and can double in number every 20 minutes.

I will be attending a tailgate party at the stadium and eating hamburgers. How can I be sure the burgers are fully cooked? The only way to know hamburgers are safely cooked is to use a food thermometer. Do not use color to tell whether food has been thoroughly cooked. Ground beef may turn brown before it has reached a temperature at which bacteria are destroyed. A hamburger cooked to 155 °F, properly measured with a food thermometer, is safe—regardless of color. An instant-read thermometer is easy to use and a must for preparing foods safely. They can be purchased from most grocery or “kitchen” stores for under $10. These thermometers are not designed to remain in the food while it’s cooking but will read the temperature in 10 to 20 seconds depending on the type and when placed according to the manufacturer’s instructions. (A thermometer may have to be inserted sideways in a hamburger to get an accurate reading.)

Our dorm has a kitchen with a microwave on each floor. When I microwave the food according to the package’s instructions, it’s still partly frozen. Why doesn’t it get hot enough? In a large building like a dorm, electrical equipment such as computers, toaster ovens, hair dryers, and irons compete for current and reduce the electrical wattage of a microwave. A community microwave oven that has been used just before you, will cook more slowly than a cold oven. To compensate, set the microwave for the maximum time given in the instructions. Also, avoid using an extension cord with the microwave oven because power is reduced as it flows down the cord. Cover foods during cooking. Remember to stir or rearrange food and rotate the dish. Use a food thermometer to ensure the food reaches the appropriate internal temperature.

My home is only a four-hour drive away from college. How can I safely pack leftovers to bring back to school? For a four-hour drive, food must be handled properly to keep it safe from spoilage and pathogenic bacteria. Leftovers should be divided into shallow containers and cooled in the refrigerator before the trip. Pack the food in an insulated cooler packed with several inches of ice or frozen gel packs. The temperature inside these containers should be at or below 40 °F. Return the food to the refrigerator as soon as possible.

For more information about food safety, visit the Home & Garden Information Center website at .

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