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TIME DOESN'T STAND STILL FOR FROZEN FOOD

While cleaning my refrigerator and kitchen cabinets recently, I was overwhelmed by all our "stuff." It was like an archaeological dig. It got me thinking about how long things can last in the fridge, freezer and pantry. If you can't remember when you last used it, how could it still be good?

Test your knowledge, and see if you can still eat it.

True or false: Foods can last forever in the freezer.

True. My mother's freezer is like taking a trip down memory lane. She even has a piece of my sister's wedding cake that has just celebrated its 18th anniversary. But even though frozen foods are safe forever, the enzymes present in animal foods, vegetables and fruits can deteriorate their quality. Freezing slows, but does not stop, the enzyme activity.

That's why food in the freezer has a "quality" shelf life, which varies depending on the food. For instance, hamburger has a freezer shelf life of three to four months. And any food you freeze needs to be wrapped in heavy-duty aluminum foil, plastic wrap or an airtight freezer bag. Here are a few examples of recommended storage durations:

Chicken or turkey, whole: one year

TV dinners/frozen casseroles: three to four months

Leftover fried chicken: four months

For more storage dates, go to www.fightbac.org/doubt.cfm

True or false: A doggie bag from my favorite restaurant will last at least a week if the fridge is cold enough.

False. Takeout food, doggie bags and leftovers should be refrigerated within about two hours and eaten within two to three days, according to Donald W. Schaffner, extension specialist in food science and professor at Rutgers. Many times the quality, including taste and texture, breaks down, says Meredith H. Luce, a clinical dietitian at Florida Hospital in Orlando. She advises keeping leftovers in airtight containers, not in aluminum foil -- it just doesn't do the job. "Air is your enemy in preserving the taste and quality of food," she adds.

Oh, and by the way, don't think that simply looking at or smelling a food will tell you if it's safe. If you're not sure when you stuck it in the fridge, toss it.

True or false: Using the salad and/or meat drawer in the fridge preserves your food for months.

False. Although I thought those drawers were a scam to help sell refrigerators, they do help extend the life of your food -- just not for months.

"The salad and meat drawers provide air circulation and minimize drying, so they do increase shelf life and maintain the texture and appearance of the foods," says Purnendu C. Vasavada, a professor of food science and microbiology at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. The key feature of a meat drawer is its temperature. "The colder you can keep your meat, the longer it will last," says Schaffner.

And, according to Schaffner, "The two key features of a vegetable crisper are control of humidity and temperature. That's why supermarkets mist vegetables with water, because they tend to lose moisture over time."

Storing vegetables and meat properly can increase their shelf life as much as 40 percent. But if you put them in the drawer and forget about them -- well, that defeats the entire purpose, adds Luce.

However, from a food-safety perspective, even limp or discolored vegetables, such as lettuce, are perfectly safe to eat, says Keith R. Schneider, a professor of food science at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

True or false: If cheese gets moldy, it's safe to take the mold off and eat the cheese.

True, but it depends on the kind of cheese. If mold forms on hard or firm cheese (cheddar, for example), cut off the mold plus 1 inch of cheese around and below the mold, and be careful not to touch the mold with your knife. Then wrap the trimmed cheese in plastic wrap and refrigerate it, advises Luce, who also says that soft and semisoft cheeses such as brie, feta or cottage cheese are a different story. Mold spores spread more easily through soft foods, so if you see mold on a soft cheese (unless it's supposed to be there, as with blue cheese), throw it out. Also discard moldy breads, jams, jellies, yogurts and sour cream.

True or false: Condiments such as mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard and barbecue sauce can last a long time in the fridge -- almost forever.

True, but not forever. They'll last about six months, which to most of us sounds like a pretty short time considering our condiments seem to be in there for years. They will eventually spoil, either due to chemical changes or bacterial growth. But keep in mind that these bacteria are not the ones that make us sick; they just spoil the taste, says Schaffner.

"One of the reasons condiments last as long as they do is because they have an acidic environment (e.g., the vinegar in ketchup), and bacteria don't do well in that situation," says Schneider. As far as mayo is concerned, Schneider says it gets a bad rap and is not really as dangerous as its reputation.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a syndicated health, fitness and nutrition columnist. Write to info@thedietdetective.com.