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How safe are convenience foods?

What you should know about the dangers of convenience foods and how you can purchase and store them safely.
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Things like lunch meats, canned foods or prepared salads don’t always have to be cooked, so how can you be sure they are safe when you buy them? On NBC’s “Today” show, nutritionist Leslie Bonci provides some tips to help you purchase and store “convenience foods” safely.

WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT: This category includes things like deli meats, pre-cooked foods, prepared salads and frozen, canned, dried or cured foods. Basically they’re all the things that those of us who are too lazy or too busy to really cook, buy.

WHY ARE THESE FOODS AN ISSUE? For the most part you won’t be cooking these foods, so unlike poultry, meat or eggs and the like, you don’t have much control over their safety beyond choosing and storing them properly. Of course there are some exceptions, but that is the general concern of this category.

DELI MEATS: Deli meats or “ready-to-eat” meats are items like bologna, ham, salami, turkey, hot dogs, etc. These processed meats are at risk of being contaminated by listeria.

Pregnant women in particular should avoid these products at all costs unless they are going to cook them first. The rest of us should make sure the products we buy are cold. Don’t keep them more than 2-3 days, and never, ever eat hotdogs raw right out of the package. Always cook them first.


Make sure items like egg salad, potato salad, macaroni salad, etc. were kept in a refrigerated case — take your hand and touch the glass to be sure. If you are getting these things off a salad bar look to make sure that the containers or platters have been packed in ice. The best thing to keep in mind when buying these types of foods is to go early when the salads are sure to be fresh or ask for fresh batches to be put out if you don’t like the look or temperature of what’s there.

Roasted chickens and cooked foods:

When buying things like pre-roasted chickens, stuffed chicken breast, knishes or other pre-cooked foods, you might find behind the deli counter, always re-heat them before eating and don’t buy them unless you are going to eat them that day. If you are buying hot food off of a salad bar, make sure it’s been kept heated, and that when it’s replenished a whole new tray is brought out rather than the empty one being refilled.

Canned foods:

Improperly processed or temperature-abused canned foods can cause cases or outbreaks of botulism. When buying canned goods consumers should avoid any signs of bulging, dents or leaking, and anything that looks like it was home-canned. You have no way of knowing if the person who canned it used proper and safe procedures. At home, they should be kept in a cool/dry place — not above the oven or under the sink, or in any cabinet where there are pipes.

Low-acid canned goods like stews or carrots can last up to five years. High-acid canned ones like tomatoes or fruit can be stored 12-18 months, beans one year and canned fish like tuna and sardines — only six months. If the cans have been stored so long that they are gathering dust, be sure to clean them off before opening.

Frozen foods:

Choose frozen foods (like dinners and vegetables) that are in the back of the case. The door is constantly being opened and shut so the stuff in the back is going to remain the coldest/most frozen. Once an item has thawed (even slightly) it should not be re-frozen. For vegetables in a bag, check to make sure there are no clumps — you want the pieces to be loose. Clumps cause moisture to build up, which causes contamination. Shelf life: 3-4 months.

Dried or cured foods:


Don’t buy a hanging dried or cured meat if it has been cut open. If that skin on the outside is still intact, it will keep for up to a year without being refrigerated. The minute you take it home and cut into it, it must go in the fridge.


The only rule with dried fruit is to go by the sell-by date. They are, for the most part, pretty safe.