How I almost poisoned my family with holiday leftovers

A white bean and vegetable soup seemed the perfect use of the last of the remaining ham from the holidays. I felt pretty pleased with myself for cooking it two days before parents came for a visit–that would give it the right amount of time to reach full flavor, and it would be ready to heat when I got home from work.white-bean-and-ham-soup

When I finished cooking, I realized that I didn’t have room in the fridge for the enormous pot of soup. But the outside temperature was plenty cold, so I decided to store it on the outside deck, protecting it from raccoons by putting it inside a cooler. I once again felt pleased with my cleverness as I shut the cooler lid tightly with my soup safe inside.

Second thoughts

The next morning, I slipped a large blue ice block into the cooler in case the daytime temperature rose. But the pot didn’t feel all that cold, so I had a nagging feeling, but figured the blue ice and the cooler would keep it chilled.

At work, I decided to ask my colleague (who works with physical activity–not food safety) whether she thought it was safe to eat the soup. We debated whether any bacteria would be killed off by boiling the soup when someone in the neighboring cubicle popped up and said, “I’m sorry for eavesdropping, but I can’t stay silent! Please don’t poison your family! Don’t eat the soup!”

Highway to the “danger zone”

This knowledgeable Public Health worker explained that by shutting the soup in the cooler, I had created the perfect laboratory for toxins to form.  The sealed cooler retained the heat from the soup pot rather than cooling it, but didn’t keep it hot enough to be safe. So the soup was in the “danger zone” above 41 degrees and below 135 degrees–a temperature ideal for growing bacteria and toxins.

Even worse, she told me, beans are a notoriously hazardous food that can develop toxins if not kept out of the danger zone temperatures. (Rice is another one.) And even boiling the soup again would not be enough to destroy the toxins.

She advised me that next time, I could cool the soup more quickly by spreading into a shallow pan, and then keep it stored in the fridge. It’s possible that it could’ve stayed cool enough outside without the cooler–but I’m sure I’d eventually find some bloated neighborhood raccoons and an empty pot. (See my earlier post on raccoon latrines for another reason why that would be a bad idea.)

So I’m feeling less pleased with myself, but grateful to this co-worker. My family and I dined on take-out food after I disposed of the hazardous soup, and no one got sick. And as a New Year’s resolution, I’m thinking maybe I need to get a freezer for my  leftovers.

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I am a risk communications specialist at Public Health - Seattle & King County.