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Keeping Bacteria from Taking Over the World

I left chicken legs out for 20 hours. Do I toss or can I barbecue them?

Whether you barbecue them or not is up to you. But of course you throw them out before the thought of eating them ever crosses your mind.

An extremely witty saying in the food industry is, "keep it hot, keep it cold, or don't keep it!" A rule of thumb though not nearly as witty is that bacteria need about four hours in ideal conditions to grow to high enough numbers to be capable of causing illness.

What are ideal conditions? They have to do with the nature of the food (primarily the protein content), acidity, time, temperature, oxygen present, and moisture but time and temperature are the most important if the other conditions are favorable. Most bacteria present in the chicken grow only very slowly below 40F (5C). Between that temperature and 68F (20C), there is the opportunity for moderate growth. Between 68F and 120F (49C), there is rapid bacterial growth. Between 120F and 140F (60C), growth slows, and above 140F, bacteria begin to be killed off.

Under ideal conditions, bacteria cells can double in as little as 15 minutes, and for most bacteria, a single cell can generate more than 1 million cells in only 5 hours. Your chicken legs, if left at room temperature for 20 hours, have bacteria populations approaching a zillion each and almost certainly can dance on their own.

Perhaps this would be a good evening to eat out?

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