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Can eating leftover rice kill you? Here’s the science behind ‘fried rice syndrome’

Once again, TikTok has sparked intense conversations about food safety.

In recent weeks, a report from 2008 resurfaced on the social media platform, terrifying users about the dangers of eating leftover reheated starchy foods, particularly rice and pasta. On TikTok, we talk about “fried rice syndrome”.

Originally published in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, the story centered on the death of a Brussels student following his consumption of a plate of spaghetti prepared for a meal he was supposed to have cooked on Sunday, left out, and then reheated and eaten five days later.

This may make you wonder: how long can you leave food out and eat it again? Is it safer to eat leftovers from the fridge? What did the late student actually consume?

We asked food safety experts all this and more.

What is “fried rice syndrome”?

In the case of the Brussels student, the illness was food poisoning caused by the bacteria Bacillus cereus.

Found throughout the environment in its dormant spore form, the microorganism does not typically cause illness, explained Dr. Ellen Shumaker, a food safety expert and director of outreach for the Safe Plates program at the University of State of North Carolina.

The ungerminated organism is often seen in soil and starchy foods (again, like rice or pasta). According to Shumaker, it is primarily associated with cooked rice, hence the syndrome’s name.

Once cooked, the expert explains, the spores can germinate, become active and start creating toxins. “Eating the toxin is what makes people sick,” Shumaker said.

“The organism’s spores germinate in response to the heat of cooking,” said Dr. Donald Schaffner, professor and extension specialist in food science at Rutgers. “The organism survives the cooking process and then grows rapidly in poorly refrigerated foods. Once the organism reaches relatively high concentrations (hundreds of thousands or millions of organisms), it can cause disease through infection or the formation of a heat-stable toxin. When people ingest the organism or toxin, they become ill.

The spores typically germinate when food is cooked in what Shumaker defines as “the temperature danger zone,” between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

“To prevent bacteria growth, it is recommended to keep food outside of this temperature range for more than four hours,” she said.

It is important to note that although the germination process may start during cooking, it continues while the food is at room temperature.

How long can you leave starchy foods at room temperature before they go bad?

Once cooked, food is ripe for spore germination, unless the dish is immediately refrigerated, which would stop the active bacteria from multiplying.

“The general common-sense recommendation is to leave cooked foods at room temperature for no more than two hours,” Schaffer noted. “If cooked food is quickly refrigerated, it means the organism will not multiply to dangerous levels.”

© Eleonora Galli via Getty Images

Once cooked, spores of the Bacillus cereus bacteria can germinate in rice and other starchy foods, causing illness after being left at room temperature to multiply.

At least on TikTok, many comments focus on the hypothesis that refrigerating dishes that are still hot could have a negative impact on them. It turns out that might be the opposite of the truth.

In fact, at least when analyzing this practice from a food poisoning perspective, Shumaker explained that “because toxin formation occurs in the temperature danger zone, it is important to cool food quickly.” »

Although hot foods can be put directly in the refrigerator, Shumaker says it all depends on how much food you store. Specifically, the larger the pot, the longer it will take food to cool in the middle of the pot.

“It is recommended to divide large portions of hot dishes into shallow containers to allow them to cool more quickly before putting them in the refrigerator,” she advises. “Also make sure the refrigerator temperature is below 41 degrees.”

What are the symptoms of this specific food poisoning?

Generally speaking, the symptoms of “fried rice syndrome” are similar to those observed in response to other types of food poisoning (vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramps, etc.).

However, unlike other bacteria that cause poisoning immediately after consumption, Bacillus cereus bacteria can cause reactions 30 minutes to 5 hours after ingestion, Shumaker said.

“Diarrhea could start 8 to 16 hours after eating contaminated food,” she revealed.

Although there is no medication to take for the syndrome, the most important way to stay healthy and fight it, experts say, is to stay hydrated.

In severe cases, when vomiting and diarrhea last for hours, it is advisable to seek treatment at an urgent care center, where professionals may administer fluids to relieve dehydration.

Since Bacillus cereus disease is caused by a toxin and not a bacteria, antibiotics, which specifically attack organisms like these, won’t help the situation, Shumaker said.

Can food poisoning caused by Bacillus cereus cause death?

Although it was established that the Brussels student’s death was indeed linked to the Bacillus cereus bacteria, “it is very rare for this type of food poisoning to result in death,” Schaffer said.

Shumaker agreed, noting that the problem is usually resolved within a day or two of symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also assures the public that while food safety measures should always be kept in mind, these cases of food poisoning often go unreported because patients begin to feel better within a few hours.

The Huffington Gt

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