12

US recommendations always go for +4°C at most, and this would correlate with how the danger zone is defined in the pertinent literature.

In Germany, most literature (and also the specification next to use-by dates on packaging) suggests +7°C or +8°C. http://www.br.de/radio/bayern1/inhalt/experten-tipps/umweltkommissar/kuehlschrank-temperatur-energie-verbrauch-umweltkommissar-100.html

Surprisingly, the first dutch google result http://www.consumentenbond.nl/koelkast/extra/temperatuur-koelkast/ suggests +3-4°C.

France, http://www.linternaute.com/bricolage/pratique/electromenager/17004/temperature-frigo-tout-ce-qu-il-faut-savoir.html +4°C

UK, http://www.exeter.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=11517 +8°C and redefines the danger zone.

What is up with that, given +4°C vs +8°C is not as trivial a difference as it looks like...

Not truly answered in possible duplicate What is the ideal fridge temperature. If even on this site such things aren't accepted as a "matter of opinion" (generally good!), why would they be between devoloped nations?

One would assume biology and state of science being the same in all these countries, either things are likely or very unlikely to spoil in a non-visible way at that or that temperature...

8

As a starting point, I found this article, which says:

The suggested temperature specification for refrigeration of foods has been revisited from time to time as knowledge and technology have advanced. Initially 7°C (45°F) was considered the optimal temperature; however, technological improvements have made it economical to have domestic refrigeration units working at a temperature of 4-5°C (40-41°F). For perishable products ≤4.4°C (40°F) is considered a desirable refrigeration temperature. ... Even these measures cannot control all pathogenic bacterial growth. For example L. monocytogenes, Yersinia enterocolitica, Aeromonas hydrophila, B. cereus and C. botulinum will multiply at recommended “good” refrigeration temperatures (5°C [41°F]). There are other bacteria (Salmonella spp., E. coli and S. aureus), that, although unable to grow at temperatures below 5°C (41°F), will take advantage of temperature abuse and grow. ...

If you're interested in additional detail about all that, the article does have a bibliography, but most of it is not accessible online. I did find this table of temperature ranges for growth for several common bacteria, though. Note that for example C. botulinum grows down to 3.3C/38°F, and L. monocytogenes (listeria) grows down to 29.3°F (-1.5°C)! So even 4°C isn't stopping everything.

In any case, there definitely is concrete benefit from the 4°C guideline: many foodborne bacteria will definitely multiply above 5°C, which would lead to shorter safe refrigeration times (or more foodborne illness if you times aren't adjusted) at the 7°C or 8°C temperatures used in Germany.

I don't know anything concrete about why Germany has chosen to tolerate this risk, however. The historical progression to lower temperatures cited there does suggest that Germany simply hasn't adjusted their standards lower as technology has improved (as mentioned in the article) but it's not clear why.

A side note: outside of food safety, the primary way fridges can have an undesired effect on food is by accidentally freezing it. (Temperatures vary by position in the fridge, and by time.) There's a balance here between reducing temperature as much as possible for safety, and keeping far enough above 0°C that variance doesn't routinely freeze your food. Given that some things grow even below 4°C, I'm guessing that if it were possible to hold temperature more constant, we'd actually see even lower temperature recommendations, in the same vein as previous decreases in temperature recommendations.

  • I found that setting 8°C on my fridge creates worse consequences from that freezing effect than 4°C: At 4°C, stuff that gets accidentally frozen at least will stay frozen, at 8°C, any disturbance creates a freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw cycle in these spots that will ruin vegetables thoroughly... – rackandboneman Jan 22 '16 at 23:16
  • Also: What fridge temperatures has imported food (eg brands that are sold across the EU) actually been tested at when the label says "store cool after opening"? Something that has been tested at 4°C and found/formulated to be safe unless it shows visible spoilage... might not be at 8°C in German or UK conditions. .... Or might there be a hidden calculation behind it that takes into account that ambient temperatures in Germany and the UK will usually be lower than in more southern parts of europe, thus leading to less trouble through ambient-temperature phases during transport? – rackandboneman Jan 22 '16 at 23:22
  • One factor may be that (for some unfathomable reason) Germans still use refrigerators that would be considered dorm-sized in the US. It's possible those small fridges are not capable of reliably producing 4°C. – Marti Jan 23 '16 at 0:01
  • @rackandboneman I have absolutely no idea about import/export and testing in the EU, sorry! Sounds like the kind of thing that could be complicated for a lot of non-culinary reasons. – Cascabel Jan 23 '16 at 0:24
  • @Marti they can, BUT they tend to have freezy spots indeed... – rackandboneman Jan 24 '16 at 23:24
3

Just to add another element to Cascabel's excellent answer, have a look at the table on page 16 of this source. (It's from the same website that one of Cascabel's sources comes from, which is a great resource for food safety information in general, with documents mostly written by an expert with numerous citations to the food safety literature.)

Anyhow, that table shows safe holding times at various temperatures based on the following assumptions:

These times are derived from the growth of pathogenic microorganisms in food. They are based on the cold holding standard established in the FDA Food Code that food at 41°F can be held for 7 days. These times at specified temperatures are based on the assumption that the food is of average quality when obtained from the food market or supplier.

The table provides the following data points for the length of safe food preservation:

  • 29F (-1.7C) or lower - "Safe" (indefinitely - no pathogenic bacterial growth)
  • 30F (-1.1C) - 123.8 days
  • 35F (1.7C) - 19.3 days
  • 40F (4.4C) - 7.5 days
  • 41F (5.0C) - 6.5 days
  • 45F (7.2C) - 4.0 days
  • 50F (10.0C) - 2.4 days

The table continues upward, eventually hitting the minimum "safe" time of around 4 hours at 110-115F, which was the rationale for the old "4-hour rule" that specified maximum time food could be in the "Danger Zone." (The newer 2-hour guideline seems to take into account a wider margin of error, including possible misunderstandings of the rule, improper storage, transportation, handling during prep time, etc.)

In any case, the important thing to take away is that the "Danger Zone" is not some monolithic entity, and its boundaries are a bit fuzzy. There's a widely-held belief that bacteria immediately begin growing rapidly when you hit the low point of the "Danger Zone," but it's not true. Bacteria growth happens quite slowly at cool temperatures. And as Cascabel notes, some bacteria will still grow below the "Danger Zone" limits as defined by most countries. Thus, 4C/5C/8C or whatever are not some magical limit on bacteria growth -- they are instead a practical guideline based on some safe holding time assumptions.

As mentioned above, the FDA's assumption seems to be based on 7 days of safe holding. The standards mentioned in the question which have 7-8C are probably targeted at around 3-4 days of holding time. Given that Europeans tend to shop more frequently, have smaller refrigerators, and store perishable food in them for shorter times than typical Americans, the difference in the guidelines doesn't surprise me at all.


Also, a final important point is that not all spoilage bacteria are equally dangerous. Some cause serious illness, some will cause mild gastrointestinal discomfort, and some are essentially benign to consume but will cause the food to taste (or smell or look) awful. At different temperatures some types of bacteria will outcompete others in growth. At higher temperatures, it's clear that pathogenic bacteria can grow quickly and cause illness when the food is consumed. At cool and cold temperatures, other spoilage bacteria often grow faster than the pathogens.

So, it's not just enough to say that bacteria X can multiply above 4C or 8C or whatever. You need to take into account whether bacteria X is likely to grow fast enough to accumulate enough concentration of bacteria and/or toxins to cause illness before some other non-dangerous spoilage bacteria/yeast/mold grows and makes the food unpalatable enough that people will just throw it out. (Note that some spoilage bacteria can grow at even lower temperatures, down to 23F/-5C or so, but these won't cause foodborne illness, just spoilage.)

If you read other documents on the site linked above, you'll find some references to scientific literature suggesting that much of the time food up to somewhere around 55-60F (around 15C) "spoils safe." In other words, at low temperatures, even if pathogenic bacteria grow, in many cases the random not-so-dangerous spoilage microorganisms grow faster and will spoil the food (make it unpalatable) before it becomes dangerous to eat. (The site goes so far as to claim the FDA's recommendations are incomplete in their reasoning, saying a temperature threshold of 50F (10C) for holding fresh food should be sufficient to promote safety according to HACCP science. I personally wouldn't change my fridge temperature based on that, but it's an interesting conclusion given the inconsistent guidelines from the question. Also, note this guideline is only for fresh foods; elsewhere the site recommends a maximum holding temperature of 38F for cooked leftover foods to guarantee "safe spoilage.")

Epidemiological evidence concurs with this assessment: unless the food is highly contaminated to begin with, there are few outbreaks that can be traced to food which was always kept quite cool. On the other hand, if food is kept cool but is stored above refrigerator temperatures, it is growing bacteria, and thus the higher concentration of bacteria will have a "head start" and will be more likely to grow to dangerous levels if subsequently cooked slowly, handled poorly during prep, etc. -- this is the likely the real reason behind the "Danger Zone" lower bound.

The takeaway message here should be that microorganism growth rates, times, and temperatures are quite complicated, and national guidelines are designed to be simple and easy to follow. But an oversimplified guideline has to be based on complex assumptions that come from various elements of microbiology, likely resulting in slightly different temperature standards.

  • Takeaway message from that would be "if you routinely store a catalog of sauce, soup etc for a week, dial it to 4 no matter where you are"... – rackandboneman Jan 23 '16 at 18:57
  • @rackandboneman - Well, as Cascabel notes, stuff can still grow at 4C, so if you want guarantee "absolute" safety in cooked food which is to be stored a long time, follow the last link's advice and go down to 38F (3.3C) maximum. But yes, assuming the food was pasteurized during cooking and cooled properly, ~40F (~4C) should be more than sufficient for a week or more. – Athanasius Jan 24 '16 at 16:22
-2

Let me start with the answer-direction

1) For household purposes (your data), the difference between four and eight degrees is small; 2) That makes it likely that the differences are trivial as well. Any scenario: Germany started at eight, and kept it at that. France started at four. Holland followed france, because they made cheaper fridges etc etc.

or france eats fresh food and quickly, so it does not need low temps, no difference between eight and four in french culture..

or .. the german eightdegree lobby was just more succesful.

Sometimes there just are no reasons. No differences in science or insights. Just historical routes, and 8 works just fine. Obviously, 18 would not work..

You would be surprised how much we think is written in stone and based on research and theory, which is just arbitrarely and with huge cultural differences.

To use the same example twice today: the US thinks that raw milk is close to deadly, while France sells it in supermarkets, with no significant differences in health outcomes. The us washes eggs and has to cool them afterwards because their defense is destroyed, in other countries it is illegal to wash them, and so no cooling is required (but they dont look as clean, of course). No difference in health (huge difference in energy and effort of course). Etc Etc.

So if you ask me: good question, no answer except a very historical-trivial one.

But hey, I might be wrong. Just a first attempt..

  • Your examples don't seem terribly convincing. The US doesn't think raw milk is close to deadly, the FDA just says it's risky, and it has indeed been tied to outbreaks - I'd hardly call that "no significant differences in health outcomes". Similarly, increasing refrigerator temperature increases risk. I don't know how much, but construing that as "no health difference" seems disingenuous. Assuming that no one has actually studied it is a bit of a leap, too. – Cascabel Jan 18 '16 at 23:13
  • The egg-washing thing also isn't a "no health difference" thing, they're just making a tradeoff: lower risk of contamination from the shells at the cost of requiring refrigeration vs higher risk from shells but no refrigeration required. – Cascabel Jan 18 '16 at 23:15
  • 1
    But setting aside the details of the examples you gave, I think the bottom line is you need to try to back this up. You've just asserted that 4C doesn't make much difference. I'm not terribly convinced by the suggestion that no one's actually researched this; food safety agencies do tend to try to study things. – Cascabel Jan 18 '16 at 23:23
  • Thing is, the definitions of "outside danger zone" are not used to manage a significant risk, they are used in situations where you want the risk guaranteed insignificant. And they become very relevant in home cooking too when guests are served, AND/OR when one wears the margin thin on other aspects (eg food kept longer in fridge than recommended, or guest of weak health). The question I mentioned as a "false duplicate candidate", I mentioned because it had collected answers that handwaved at history and customs... – rackandboneman Jan 19 '16 at 0:32
  • 1
    It is irrational to try to avoid any possible risk at great cost (but, may i add, let a Mac marketing very unhealthy food to children for instance). Different cultures make different decisions, and they are not based on rational data..these do not exist. You may call these numbers significant, and i can say they are not. There is not much more to discuss about this I guess. I stick to my answer regarding the OP. – Marc Luxen Jan 23 '16 at 10:32

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