You Can Get Food Poisoning from Leftover Rice—Here’s How to Avoid It
Make sure you’re storing your leftovers properly, or you could get seriously sick.
Meal preppers and takeout fans, take note—if you’re not storing your cooked rice properly, you could end up with food poisoning. You might’ve heard before that reheating leftover rice is dangerous and can cause food poisoning, and some warn against saving your leftovers if you make a side of rice for dinner or order fried rice with your takeout. But really, the danger doesn’t come from reheating your rice, but from improperly storing it before it goes in the fridge.
The problem is that uncooked rice can have spores of Bacillus cereus, which is a bacterium that can cause food poisoning. These spores can survive even when the rice is cooked, and if you leave your rice out at room temperature, the spores can grow into bacteria and multiply. The bacteria might then produce toxins which can make you sick.
If those toxins do form, it doesn’t matter how hot you get your rice when you reheat it, those toxins will still be there. Bacillus cereus illness, which is sometimes called “fried rice syndrome,” can cause some nasty symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The symptoms will usually set in just a few hours after eating your leftovers, but luckily will only last for about 24 hours.
However, rice isn’t the only food that Bacillus cereus or other bacteria can grow in. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends keeping all foods out of the temperature “danger zone” to keep them safe from bacteria. That means hot foods should be 140°F or hotter, and cold foods should be 40°F or colder. Whenever your leftovers’ temperature is in the 100° range in the middle, it’s prime conditions for bacteria to grow.
You don’t have to toss all your leftovers, though—just pay close attention to how you’re cooling and storing them. The USDA recommends cooling leftovers rapidly. For foods like soup or rice, where you might have a large pot of them, divide your leftovers into lots of smaller containers (instead of one big container) to cool briefly on your countertop, then store in the fridge. According to the USDA, you can place hot foods directly in the fridge, or you can rapidly chill leftovers in an ice bath before moving them to the fridge. Don’t leave food out of the fridge for more than two hours, and ideally, try to get your leftover rice in the fridge within an hour so bacteria don’t have much chance to grow.
In particular, be careful with takeout, because you don’t always know exactly how long your food has been sitting at room temperature. One of the best ways to make sure your takeout fried rice, or other takeout food, is safe to eat the next day is to get it in the fridge as soon as you bring it home. Fix up your dinner plate, but before you dig in, transfer the leftovers to airtight containers and get them in the fridge.
You should definitely be careful with leftover rice because it can cause food poisoning if it’s not stored properly, but really, bacteria can grow in pretty much any food that’s not stored correctly and make you sick. So while there’s no need to toss your leftovers, make sure you’re paying attention to how long they’ve been sitting at room temperature, and get them in the fridge as soon as possible.