As a restaurant or café owner, it’s your duty to store all dry, frozen and refrigerated foods responsibly. If stored incorrectly, the food may spoil, become contaminated and even cause food-borne illnesses in your customers. Have you ever noticed meat, vegetables or other frozen items looking discoloured, tough or shrivelled? If so, freezer burn is most often the culprit. So, what exactly is it, is this food safe to eat and how can you prevent freezer burn? This blog answers these questions and more.

Freezer burn 101

We’ve all seen it. When left in the freezer too long, food becomes overwhelmed or “burned” with frost.

When frozen, water molecules contained within the food form ice crystals. These move from the food to the coolest section of the freezer (i.e. on the side). The lost molecules cause food to lose moisture. This creates the all too familiar phenomenon of freezer burn. After prolonged exposure to subzero temperatures, air reaches your food far too easily. As a consequence, it will dehydrate and oxidise. Food then becomes unappetising and tasteless.

What causes freezer burn?

An extremely common problem, freezer burn can occur for many reasons. However, the most common causes include:

#1 Food stored improperly in the freezer – To prevent water molecules from escaping, ensure all food is wrapped securely and tightly.

#2 Food stored in the freezer for too long – Every food item has a specific storage time. If food is frozen beyond this time, water molecules will escape. This will occur even if it is stored and sealed securely.

#3 Your freezer does not maintain a consistent temperature – For optimal performance, your freezer must maintain a constant temperature of -15°C or lower. When the temperature fluctuates, freezer burn will occur.

What does freezer burn look like?

If you operate a food business, it’s imperative to know precisely what freezer burn looks like. This will help you assess whether it is safe to prepare and serve this food to your customers. To help you detect freezer burn, here are some obvious signs to look for:

• Beef is covered in dry spots, giving the meat a brown or grey appearance
• Protein is discoloured
• Vegetables look listless and slimy
• Packaging is ripped, leaving the food exposed to air
• The food has white spots (i.e. ice crystals)

Is it safe to serve?

This is a question that confronts many café and restaurant owners. Fortunately, however, freezer-burned food is 100 per cent safe to serve. The reason is that freezer burn is simply a loss of moisture. This will not cause any adverse health problems, as there is no opportunity for harmful bacteria to grow on the food’s surface.

Despite this, many food servers are still reluctant to serve this food. This is understandable, as it will lose its taste entirely. In this instance, a lot of otherwise good food is discarded, as it is unappetising to customers. For quality assurance, you need to determine whether the affected food should be thrown out.

The good news is that there is a simple way to ensure freezer burn-affected food remains tasty. To retain taste, we advise you to cut away the burned sections before defrosting and cooking the food.

When should it be discarded?

If you are unsure, sometimes the best approach is to be cautious. However, the good news for food servers and customers is that freezer burn has no direct health consequences. When thawed, food should always be discarded if:

• Thawed meat appears dull or slimy
• Thawed food has an odd smell
• The food has no label detailing when the food was initially frozen
• The food is frozen amid a puddle of water

How to avoid freezer burn

This is a problem no restaurant or café owner wants to face. That said, there are some essential steps food servers can take to prevent freezer burn. These include always storing it correctly and maintaining temperature control. You should also make sure food is properly sealed and tightly wrapped. Always remove excess air from freezer bags before sealing them. Allow hot food to cool prior to freezing and label every food item with the correct name and date. Ensure every freezer is operating at a consistent temperature of -15°C or less, and always use frozen food items prior to their use-by date.