Could You Get Sick from Reheated Leftovers? It’s Rare but Potentially Dangerous — Here’s How to Keep Yourself Safe

published Mar 2, 2022
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Someone putting a pie in microwave
Credit: Sarah Crowley

In a recent incredibly sad viral video, many folks learned the story of a New England teen who had both legs amputated after falling seriously ill. The cause of such a tragedy? He had reheated and eaten leftover takeout food. His hospital stay was lengthy, and spanned illnesses from necrosis of his arms and legs to gangrene. 

The meal in question was chicken lo mein, but don’t let that be the cause of you giving up on your favorite Chinese restaurant order: The contents of the meal were not to blame, but rather the internal temperatures of the food. Although there are no clear answers as to what exactly happened, Randy Worobo, a food scientist at Cornell University says, “I suspect that the noodles were not refrigerated or had a very long delay between being prepared and then actually being consumed again.”

If, like many cooks in America, you rely on leftovers to power you through busy days and evenings, you may be wondering: How common is severe food poisoning? Could I experience organ failure from reheating leftovers? The exceedingly good news is that such a case is rare, according to Worobo. In an interview with PEOPLE, he explained that although organ failure and amputation are highly unlikely following consumption of unsafe food, there are other risks. If you’ve ever suffered through food poisoning, surely you know that even a “mild” case is a big deal.

Credit: Yossy Arefi
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So if the internal temperature of food is key to staying safe and healthy, what do you need to know? A few things:

1. Cook all food to a safe temperature.

Before you even think about leftovers, take care to cook all food to a safe internal temperature. In accordance with USDA guidelines, red meat should be cooked to 145°F, ground meat to a temperature of 140°F, and poultry to 165°F. If you don’t have a meat thermometer, now is the time to invest in one; don’t leave it to chance. For the most accurate read, insert the thermometer into the middle of the meat, away from any bones. 

2. Avoid keeping food at unsafe temperatures for a prolonged period.

Bacteria can thrive in the danger zone, which is 40°F to 140°F. It matters that your refrigerator is at or below 41°F, too  — anything higher puts your food at risk of contamination. Cooked food should not be kept out for more than two hours, so don’t risk “saving” anything that’s been at room temperature for an entire afternoon. Want to keep cooked food hot for a prolonged period? Ensure that it stays above 140˚F.

3. Reheat all leftovers to 165˚ F. Period. 

Whether you’re using a microwave, the stovetop, your oven, toaster oven, or an air fryer to reheat leftovers, consume them only once they have reached an internal temperature of 165°F. 

While it’s hard to completely eliminate your risk of exposure to food poisoning, the chances you will get extremely sick from it are rare. Follow these rules, and you’re even safer. Happy reheating!