Perhaps it's just me, but I've been seeing more and more questions recently that fit this template: "Is it safe to eat X that has been left at Y for Z amount of time?"

I think it's a perfectly good and useful question, but I'm a bit concerned that SA is the right venue for discussing it, for a few reasons.

  1. It doesn't seem to add much to the site. It does not seem to be the case that answering this question for one person in one instance transfers to another person in another instance. To me, this implies that we're not really increasing the body of knowledge, rather just answering a single user's question.
  2. The people who ask these questions seem to be hit-and-run types. Again, this may be just my perception, but I don't get the impression that these questions are being asked by either people who have a history of contributing to the site, or people who stick around after their question is answered.

I recognize that these questions have been specifically deemed on-topic, and I don't want to challenge that. However, I would care to discuss:

  1. Is this a real problem, or just my perception?
  2. If it is something that should be dealt with, what can be done (whether by moderators, or the community)

I noticed this too - we've been averaging at least one question per day like this - and I proposed in chat this morning that we should just have a canonical question (i.e. "How long can raw meat be safely stored?") and start closing all of these other ones as duplicates. There's absolutely no reason why we need 50 copies of the exact same question with only trivial differences in the variables.

I just haven't gotten around to writing it yet and haven't figured how broad the scope should be. Should it include times for raw and cooked? Storage in the freezer, fridge, and at room temperature? Moisture and other environmental factors? How much detail and explanation should it call for? It's important to keep it focused enough so that the people asking the questions (hit-and-run as they may be) are actually able to find what they're looking for in there.

If anyone else wants to take a crack at it, feel free - just make sure that it's concise and clearly stated. Otherwise, I'll probably get to it sometime later this weekend.

Update: I've taken my first crack at a question that should address a significant number of the most common food safety questions. It would be great if someone else wants to have a go at the answer, or at least start one as a wiki.

  • Have you considered multiple questions, one for raw, fridge, freezer, etc. – yossarian Jun 19 '11 at 2:14
  • @yossarian: Yes, that's why I didn't go and post a question right away. There's a lot of permutations of variables, I'm trying to figure out which ones should go together. – Aaronut Jun 19 '11 at 2:32
  • I would prefer the canonical approach, and put these down, because even in answering them I am looking over my shoulder worried (especially considering a lack of detail) I will miss a variable and give bad advice. The pork loin question comes to mind for that. I also have an issue with (not my answer not being accepted but) "smell test" + [variables] being an answer without giving a fuller context (which a canonical answer could do, but incremental ones cannot). – mfg Jun 20 '11 at 13:15
  • How would 'askers' find this canonical question? Is there a mechanism that can prevent users from asking this type of questions? – BaffledCook Jun 26 '11 at 7:06
  • @BaffledCook: Same way they find any other question - Google, or having it show up in the "possible duplicates" while they're typing. If they're too lazy to search, we close it as a duplicate, and then they'll definitely find it. – Aaronut Jun 26 '11 at 15:05
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    Is pease porridge safe to eat if it's been sitting in the pot for nine days? – Ray Jun 26 '11 at 22:54
  • Maybe it'd be better to start filling out meta.cooking.stackexchange.com/tags/food-safety/info with a food safety guide? – derobert Jan 10 '12 at 21:05
  • @derobert: Guaranteed the questions will be asked anyway, but I'm sure it couldn't hurt. – Aaronut Jan 10 '12 at 21:25

I agree that this kind of questions only generates noise. I have the feeling that these people know that their case is unsafe by regular food safety guidelines, but don't want to throw out the expensive ingredients, so they just look around for confirmation.

The problem is that this creates an unwanted responsibility for the person who answers. So anybody who would write such an answer should be very cautious not to create an answer which can lead to some poor soul getting food poisoning. I don't think that any of us has the qualification and/or research time to contribute own content to an answer of such quality. So the only way to handle this situation responsibly is to cite existing legally binding guidelines for food saftey.

Which brings us to the question: Why should we try to incorporate the extensive existing information in our site? However we reformulate it, I think we can't add any value to it. Maybe we have more experience in cooking than the authorities (or maybe not), but this does not count for this type of questions. So my proposal is to not make the canonical question(s) Aaronut proposed. Instead, we should define in the FAQ that this kind of question is out of the scope, and close the questions with a link to a better source of information on food safety. http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/index.html seems to be a good source, but we can easily pick another one.

Another thought I decided to emulate the possible behaviour of the people who ask these questions. So I typed this style of question into Google. Our current "canonical" question on meat safety is very high in the list (note that the first three results point to a single domain). I still don't know how this should affect our strategy, but I think the fact is significant.

google results

  • I mentioned that I didn't want to challenge the current policy; I neglected to why I stood behind the precedent. In meta.cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/266/…, @Aaronut calls out this scenario specifically (among others), and points out that when we have too many off-topic topics in the midst of on-topic ones, we have "everybody dancing around the holes trying to land on the magical "on topic" area". – Ray Jun 19 '11 at 20:35
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    The general rule of thumb for scope is whether or not a typical professional chef/cook would have expertise on the subject. In the case of food safety, they definitely would. Trouble is that people who have no training or expertise love answering these with anecdotal evidence ("I ate a 26-week-old moldy steak and I'm still fine!"). That's why I prefer a canonical question; if our community has any sense at all (I think it does), then it should have one highly-voted, accepted, canonical answer which actually gives the correct information, and other "comments" relegated to the sidelines. – Aaronut Jun 20 '11 at 14:43
  • @Aaronut, there is a difference between "cook will have expertise" and "cook will have better expertise than a non-cook". Being a latecomer to the site, I don't know if this point was ever recognized as significant. In my opinion, it is important. But I wrote the answer as a proposal. If we as a community decide to go the way of a "canonical question", I will go along and support the decision, e.g. by upvoting the canonical question, or by adding relevant information sources if needed. – rumtscho Jun 20 '11 at 15:28

There is an new one of these right now: I left fully cooked lasagna out all night. What is worrying to me is that several people told the person to go ahead and eat it. If this is supposed to be a site with expert answers, I hate to see this kind of dangerous and misinformed "information". I don't care when people have random ideas about obscure uses for lemon zesters, but should we have some standards for safety questions? Is SE protected if dangerous advice is followed?

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    This is actually one of the oldest questions on our meta. I'm getting a little worried myself; at the beginning there wasn't too much infighting but lately we're getting a lot more people going, basically, "pfft, food safety guidelines! what do they know!" I've got some ideas for cleaning it up; I'm actually going to start one now that can hopefully be used as a dupe button for a lot of these others. – Aaronut Aug 23 '11 at 0:10
  • That's great, I look forward to one we can dupe. – Michael Natkin Aug 23 '11 at 2:33
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    I also have been worried by the answers to some of these "food left out" questions. Personally, I think the only correct answer is to point to some official guideline such as the FDA website that gives a definitive answer from a qualified expert. Answers that don't reference a official position, contradict official positions or fail to give a source for facts on safety issues should probably be -1 or even deleted. – Rincewind42 Aug 24 '11 at 13:17

The 'funny' thing is that normally, when somebody asks that question, they know the answer in their own hearts: 'No, it's not safe'. People are looking for an excuse to go ahead and ignore their inner warnings.

I'd go with the 'official' view, explain about exponential bacteria growth, explain about botulism, explain about inner temperature of the product, explain about look and smell of the product and stress the 'youth, elderly, sick' point.

So, I'm with Aaronut, write some canonical question, or maybe put it in the FAQ. I'm also willing to add information if needed.


What I find worrying in those questions is that, changing the values for X, Y, Z you get a completely different answer for which, then, the answer is always yes or no. Even if the answer would be explain the reason why is not safe, I don't think the reasons would be so different between questions. (I doubt somebody would ever say it's not safe because a creature from another planet could add and add a toxic fluid to the food you keep in Y.)


Long ago, I started this thread, What do I need to know about temperature and food safety?

But it seems to have died out without me following around and sending people there. I don't know if a newer, better one has been created, but I thought then (and think now) that there should be such a page or section of the wiki.


I wonder if such questions on left out food should be actually marked as off topic. The FAQ says "General health and diet issue (e.g. "Is cauliflower healthy?")" are off topic while "Food handling and storage" is on topic. I am going to argue that, "I left fully cooked lasagna out all night." falls into the health area and so should be off topic and does not really qualify as a storage question.

Point 1: The example "Is cauliflower healthy?" could easily be "Is fully cooked lasagna out all night healthy?" I don't think there is much difference between the two questions other than swapping cauliflower for lasagna.

Point 2: Food storage is on topic. If the question had been "How to store fully cooked lasagna." then this would be on topic. The answers could be clear and usable to the general readership. The question that was actually asked is not about storage, it's about safety or health.

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