We get a lot of questions of the form "I left food out for some period of time, is it safe?" and generally close them as a duplicate of a canonical question with a comment about how it applies. The most common one is How do I know if food left at room temperature is still safe to eat? which has the usual advice about time in the danger zone.

Is this a reasonable approach? Are there somewhat more specific canonical questions we should be using in some cases? Should we be answering some of these questions instead of closing them, presumably with some slightly tailored version of the time in the danger zone advice?

Note as background that "duplicate" doesn't mean "literal duplicate", just same answers:

Questions may be duplicates if they have the same (potential) answers. This includes not only word-for-word duplicates, but also the same idea expressed in different words.

(from the network-wide meta faq on duplicates)


5 Answers 5


I agree with the approach we currently take as in the "left food out" example in the question. There are many different circumstances where food is left in the danger zone too long and I think the canonical answer is appropriate for any of them. It doesn't matter if the food was left on the counter or the crock pot came unplugged or if the food was beef or chicken, the safety standards are the same. If it's in the danger zone too long, it's not considered safe. Period.

There are other questions and subjects that I wish we could come up with canonical answers for. One being cooking two or three items in the oven at the same time even though they require different temperatures and cooking times.

I would also say that the fried rice question could be considered a duplicate.

Closing questions as duplicates which points to a an answer (whether considered canonical or not) is beneficial, especially to new users or those who may be searching for an answer to a specific circumstance. I mean, how many questions on food safety or two items in the oven would one have to go through to find a specific circumstance when in reality the specifics may not be that important?

  • 1
    I'm inclined to agree with @Jefromi about the "left food out" question. In general its good to answer things about unplugged crock pots and steaks that got left in the car overnight, but sometimes people have questions about foods that might have slightly different or more nuanced answers (fermented foods, for example, were originally methods of preserving their more perishable ingredients, so I think its reasonable to ask about things like yogurt, cheese, and pickles) than the canon provides. For those it might be nice to either expand the canonical answer or allow answering the new question.
    – senschen
    Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 15:16
  • @senschen Not sure which thing I said you're agreeing with! But for the fermented things etc, I think the current idea is to just not call them dups of that main canonical. (Though maybe they're dups of something else!)
    – Cascabel Mod
    Commented Apr 29, 2017 at 2:06

In many "left out too long" cases, the underlying question is "is the food concerned a perishable food to which the 2/4 hour rule applies?". I often see that such questions are instantly marked duplicate and referred to a canonical that is about perishable food without explaining WHY it is or isn't in that category. Eg, a basic pizza could be considered bread (non perishable), tomato sauce (likely not of a variety acidic or salty enough to be considered pickled), hard cheese (which has different rules applying to it depending on the kind), maybe preserved meat (where the question is whether it can still be considered preserved after being cooked on a pizza). Just saying "it is perishable, throw it out" without being a bit more analytical sometimes seems just plain arrogant/hostile.

Often, the comments give one of three answers expected: a) safe, b) residual risk - don't feed it to others and be aware of the risk, c) seriously unsafe.

While b), for obvious reasons, has no place in commercial operations, is that really always the same in a domestic setting?

  • This seems like an argument against marking duplicates without comments, but not an argument against closing in general. Can you give a real example of a case where you think that being analytical would've added value, beyond just closing and saying it's perishable and the usual rule applies? In my experience the "analysis" in those cases is almost always exactly the same (it's perishable, so the rule applies) so it's a little hard to see what we should be doing better. And if the rule doesn't apply, it doesn't tend to get marked as a duplicate - or do you have an example of that in mind?
    – Cascabel Mod
    Commented Apr 30, 2017 at 19:04

It's possible that there need to be more specific 'generic' questions, rather than shoving everything at the 'food left out' answer

  1. Dealing with frozen food that's been left out (what temperature was it when you realized it, and what did you do with it?)
  2. Dealing with crockpots that lost power (how long was it out, what temperature was it at when you realized the problem?)
  3. 'Low risk' foods (stuff that's fine being left out at room temperature for a day or more)

etc. Not everything falls into the 'purge it with fire if it's been in the food danger zone for 120 cumulative minutes' category.

  • I pretty much agree - and in a lot of cases we actually have these (see my answer). There are probably more that I missed, but probably also some where we don't have a really solid canonical. We could probably just write the ones you've mentioned here. Maybe we'd also benefit from looking in SEDE at questions that are closed as duplicates of a question with the food-safety tag, so we know what's actually most frequently asked.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 19:01

I think we mostly do well, but there are some things that aren't always perfect:

  • picking the best (most specific) duplicate target
  • leaving a comment explaining the conclusion for the OP's case, e.g. "Yes, that's perishable, but one hour is okay (see the marked duplicate)."

Lack of comments is pretty straightforward to fix: assuming you have time, when voting to close, if no one else has left a comment like that yet, go for it.

For picking the best target, be careful to look at what others have suggested (including in comments); sometimes there's more than one choice and you have a chance to pick the best among them. Also, be aware of the options, and always consider whether we can do better than the catchall one.

This is a probably very incomplete list (I haven't done much digging yet), and there is some overlap:

And if we feel those don't cover it well enough, we can add more. For example, maybe we'd benefit from one specifically about "it was cooking, but then the stove/slow cooker/oven was turned off for X hours". (Or maybe we already have it somewhere.) Or maybe we should make sure we have one entirely about starting the slow cooker on warm.

  • Worth noting that we (or you mods, anyway) can now manually add additional duplicate targets so if one isn't enough for the question, we can point them at two or three different options.
    – Catija
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 16:29
  • Indeed! I've done that a few times already, and would definitely be happy to add things as suggested if someone notices something missing.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Commented May 2, 2017 at 16:30

I agree that it is good to close duplicates to specific canonical questions if possible, not to very broad ones.

Of course, this also depends on the question and on where the problem lies. If the OP seems to be aware that they have perishable food and is simply asking "is it safe after stored at X conditions for Y time", then the canonical "How long can I store..." should be used. If the food is of a group that is missing in the answer, simply edit that group into the answer.

If the problem is somewhere else, the appropriate question should be used. If no such question exists, we can choose between leaving the new one open (even if it is very specific) or writing a new canonical.

For example, we got past expiration date mozzarella today. We certainly have a question somewhere which says that spoiled food is automatically unsafe, but it seems that the OP was unaware that the bulging is a sign of spoilage. So I made a new question about that, The container of my food is domed/bulged, is it spoiled?, and closed as a duplicate of the new one, instead of sending the OP to information where they have no chance to understand how it applies to their situation.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .