Beware of the Doggy Bag
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Beware of the Doggy Bag

Bringing leftovers home in a doggy bag can be inviting foodborne illnesses if the doggy bag isn't handled properly.

The waiter asks, “Would you like a doggy bag to take home?" "That would be great" says the diner. Nearly half of her dinner remains on the plate and will make a quick second meal for another day. That is a common scenario at several of the restaurants that I eat at regularly because they serve portions that are large enough to sate my hunger but far too large for most people. This is a scenario that will be played out even more than normal during the holiday season.

Yesterday was Thanksgiving and the portions being served were even larger. A friend of mine who manages one of those restaurants told me almost everyone left with a doggy bag or two, which worried him. Doggy Bags are great but they can also be very unhealthy, depending on how long the cooked foods go unrefrigerated.

The forgotten doggy bag

Many people put the doggy bag on the back seats of their cars and then forget all about it until they discover it the next morning. The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Meat and Poultry Hotline receive hundreds of calls from people wanting to know if that food was still safe to eat. Their answer is a resounding absolutely not. People are told to throw that puppy in the garbage.

Bacteria double every 20 minutes

According to the experts at the USDA, the bacteria double every 20 minutes in cooked food left out more than two hours. Reheating the food and getting it hot enough to kill the thousands of bacteria present does not make it safe to eat. Some bacteria produce a toxin which remains even after the bacterium is killed; that is why it is called “food poisoning."

What to do with a doggy bag

  • Take the doggy bag straight home and put it in the refrigerator immediately. Do not run errands on the way home. As long as the food is refrigerated within two hours, the food can be safely stored for three to four days in the refrigerator.
  • Keep the temperature in the refrigerator set at 39 degrees Fahrenheit because bacteria reproduce rapidly between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Frozen left overs can be kept in the freezer for three to four months as long as they were placed in the freezer within two hours of cooking.
  • Discard any cooked food left out at room temperature for more than two hours.
  • Discard any cooked food after one hour if the temperature is 90 degrees or more such as might be encountered at an outdoor event.

Using refrigerated or frozen cooked foods

  • Reheat the cooked solid foods to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. You should use a meat thermometer to check the core temperature to make sure that it has reached a minimum of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. If you cover the leftovers when reheating they will retain their moisture better.
  • Reheat soups, broths, gravies, and other liquids to a rolling boil before using.
  • Thaw frozen leftovers safely in the refrigerator, cold water or the microwave oven. When thawing leftovers in a microwave, continue to heat it until it reaches 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer.
  • Any leftover "leftovers" thawed by the cold-water method or in the microwave should be reheated to 165 °F before refreezing.

When time is short

If you are in a real hurry, it is safe for you to reheat frozen leftovers without thawing them first. Reheating will take longer than if the food is thawed first, but it is safe to do when pressed for time.

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Comments (8)

Great alerts to be aware of with a doggy bag. Well stated valuable info.

I hate wasting food, I am always first to take a chance rather than waste it but these are very good food safe tips.

Excellent article! voted up

Excellent food safety tips. The one thing I never take home in a doggy bag is shell fish no matter how much is sitting on my plate. I have heard terrible stories of people getting sick on shell fish that is brought home. Speaking of doggy bags - are dogs less susceptible to the food bacteria that may be harmful to humans?

Ranked #4 in Food Safety

Excellent information, Jerry.

Ranked #12 in Food Safety

Very good informative and valuable feature as always Jerry.

I always thought a doggy bag was for your dog. I didn't know people ate them, at least I think that is what you are saying.

Ranked #1 in Food Safety

@Jill In the United States a Doggy Bag is not necessarily a bag but any container offered to diners who want to take their left over food home to eat at another time. They are just called doggy bags.