In fact, most Americans clean their fridges only once or twice a year, according to the Wall Street Journal. That's registering really high on the vomit-encrusted nastiness scale.1 People don't generally clean fridges until something triggers them to act, such as a spill or a pungent odor. Or, if you're a conscientious renter, when you move into and out of apartments.2
William "The Fridge" Perry, circa 1986
Besides the aforementioned spill and pungent odor, why do we care? Dirty fridges can mean dirty food, and unless you're looking for an excuse to get out work/school/visit to the mother-in-law's, nobody really wants a food-borne illness. Spills can lead to bacteria, mold and mildew growing in your fridge.
Think about that package of meat thawing in your fridge for dinner tomorrow. What happens if it leaks? The E. coli- and Salmonella-infested drippings could fall on to vegetables or fruit, which you might be serving raw. The acclaimed lyricist and Rhodes scholar Weird Al Yankovic penned the following verses, which make my point well (in a parody of Aerosmith's "Living on the Edge"):
There's something gross in the fridge todayHowever, fridge makers are aware that most people (a) don't clean out their fridges, and (b) don't really know how to properly put food away. Appliance makers like Whirlpool, Viking Range Corp. and Sub-Zero Inc. are tackling the messy fridge problem with a host of new features including souped-up shelves, bacteria-killing devices and better lighting, WSJ says.
It's green and growin' hair
It's been there since July
If you can name the object
In that baggie over there
Then mister, you're a better man than I
It's livin' in the fridge
You can't stop (dysentery) the mold from growin' (dysentery)
Whirlpool's new fridge (debuting later this year) includes a shelf with microscopic etching which creates surface tension, causing liquids to bubble up around the perimeter instead of spilling over. Last year, Viking Range released a model that contains Sharp Electronics Corp.'s Plasmacluster Ion Air Purifier3, which generates positive and negative ions that break down bacteria, mold and mildew (in an independent test, it killed 99% of the bacteria in the fridge). General Electric is rolling out a new fridge in May with 10 lighting sources inside instead of its usual three, so food that might be forgotten in a corner and spoil will be easier to spot.
Another problem (there's more? Yes!) is that people don't typically know how to store food properly in a fridge. Four years ago, the good folks at Sub-Zero asked a bunch of people to come to their research facilities in
People put meat and soda cans in the crisper drawers, which have a temperature and humidity meant for veggies. They put their milk in shelves on the door. While the door shelves seem to be a perfect fit for a carton of milk, Sub-Zero says the area is the worst place to store dairy products because it's the warmest part of the fridge. And most folks had no clue what to do with the special cheese compartment.You can't hear it because you're reading this online but I'm scoffing. Pshah, I say, you fridge heathens! (Actually, on further consideration, I rescind my pshah, as I was once guilty of milk in door placement.)
Anyway, the geniuses at Sub-Zero started including an instructional card that with its latest built-in models that shows the various regions of the refrigerator, from "coldest" to "cool," and gives tips on how long certain foods should be stored, WSJ says. It also indicates which foods should be allowed to ripen on the counter before being placed into the refrigerator (pears and avocados are examples). And to counteract the natural human tendency to throw out any manual, Sub-Zero stuck the instructional card on the inside of the door.
People do pack a fridge better if they actually know what to do - Pennsylvania State University instructed consumers on how to cut down on messes and how to pack food properly. A month later, the same fridges were markedly improved in both cleanliness and organization.
You spend all that time at the store/farmer's market/wherever buying food that will nourish your body (as well as that of your family if you have one). Why not make sure that the food is properly packed into a clean storage unit?4
1 The vomit-encrusted nastiness scale was inspired by Wesley's insult of Humperdinck: "It's conceivable, you miserable, vomitous mass." The VEN scale (not to be confused with the venn diagram) is a rigorously researched scale based on the sound scientific principles of my whims - the level of disgust of a particular subject. This is related to the sketch factor scale, but without the creepy chester molester paradigm. Examples of objects at the top of the VEN scale - maggots, spit, rotten food, Hugh Hefner (also high on the sketch factor scale), dirty bathrooms, the gunk at the bottom of a sink drain (if you don't have a garbage disposal).
2 I am one of these conscientious folks. As a bona fide germophobe, I scour places from top to bottom when I move in/out. The previous apartment I lived in had clumps of dog hair and a dead fly in the fridge when I moved in. It took a long time for me to calm my stomach after that.
3 I visited Viking's Web site to check out this germophobe's version of heaven and was first distracted by the lovely kitchen on the home page and then by the wine cellars. Eventually I made it to the refrigeration section and saw the 36" Quiet CoolTM Bottom-Mount Refrigerator/Freezer VCBB Professional Series. Not only does the Plasmacluster "eliminate airbourne bacteria and mold spores," but it also "removes odors and enhances food preservation." Adios, Evert-Fresh Green Bags!
4 For more refrigerator fun, check out the alternative/folk rock/indie band Refrigerator here, the lyrics for the Spin Doctors' song Refrigerator Car here, Alice Cooper's Refrigerator Heaven lyrics here, and pictures of gross fridges courtsey of Huffington Post here.