(WUSA9) - A WUSA9 investigation has found popular compact refrigerators using "thermoelectric" cooling are highly vulnerable to room temperature and, in our test, some were unable to maintain "safe" food holding even at average room temperatures - which experts say could turn your food into poison.
"When you eat that food, it can make you sick. It can put you in the hospital and it can kill you," said food microbiologist Jennifer McEntire with the Institute of Food Technologists. "That is clearly unacceptable that is clearly too warm and clearly too dangerous."
The models tested by WUSA9 differ from traditional compact refrigerators because thermoelectric models do not use compressors.
In our test, we raised the room temperature in increments and by the time we had reached 75 degrees, three of the six compact refrigerators tested failed to cool at the federally established maximum safe food storage temperature of 40 degrees.
At 80 degrees, two of the refrigerators tested were cooling above 50 degrees inside.
By 85 degrees all had failed to maintain temperatures at 40 or below.
In response to our findings, both Sears and HH Gregg are taking products off the shelf, and one manufacturer has rewritten its owners' manual to acknowledge, dependent upon room temperature, its refrigerator would be too warm to meet food safety standards.
"In an average home with an ambient temperature of 75° the mini-fridge or wine cooler's adjustable range is 44°-53° F," DPI, manufacturer of Culinair, now says in its updated manual.
Besides the models we purchased at HH Gregg and Sears, the thermoelectric units we tested are sold nationally in stores and online at sites like Best Buy, and Amazon advertised as "refrigerators" or "fridges," but on the owners' many manuals caution cooling is reliant on ambient room temperature.
Some recommend temperatures as low as 70, while one warns not to use at temperatures above 80.
In our test, we controlled room temperature by adjusting fans and electric heaters.
Experts advised us to measure ambient temperature by sampling water bottles at room temperature and refrigerator temperature by sampling the water bottle inside.
At 66.5 degrees, Koolatron was the first to exceed internal cooling of 40 degrees in our test, followed by Danby at a 70.5 room temperature, Culinair at 75, Haier and Black & Decker went above 40 when our room temperature hit 80 degrees and Avanti's internal cooling exceeded 40 when the room was at 85 degrees.
Room Brand Internal temp
66.5 Koolatron > 40
70.5 Danby >40
75 Culinair >40
80 Haier >40
80 Black & Decker >40
85 Avanti >40
We asked food microbiologist Jennifer McEntire to observe our make-shift laboratory and she used her own equipment to verify our findings of temperatures in the danger zone.
"They were above that generally speaking and some of them were substantially above that," McEntire said. "I am definitely concerned about the temperatures."
Online comments on thermoelectric models show a history of complaints from "never kept anything cold," to "not cool enough to keep the food," to "never got below 50 degrees," and one reporting the refrigerated temperature never getting below "59 degrees."
McEntire was especially concerned because many manufactures show their refrigerators using pictures of milk, eggs, and cheese.
"That is very surprising and somewhat concerning," McEntire said. "Once you get above 40 it's kind of a slippery slope."
A spokeswoman with the Consumer Product Safety Commission says refrigerator cooling standards are voluntary.
Experts say refrigerators may have escaped scrutiny, until now, because doctors don't routinely ask food poisoning victims to put a thermometer in their refrigerator - which would show when refrigerators can't cool to the safe 40 degrees.
"If it just can't get there...then it's not a safe product as designed," said Center for Science in the Public Interest attorney Sarah Klein. "It seems clear that these products should either be recalled or some legal action against the producers."
Sears and HH Gregg pulled the units we tested from shelves when we contacted them with our findings.
Amazon, and Best Buy have not responded to repeated requests for comment.
In response to our investigation, Culinair is printing a new owner's manual identifying safe temperatures and acknowledging at times, its product can't meet them.
Haier, which also manufactures Black and Decker, says it has pulled the models we tested, as did Danby.
Koolatron, which warmed up fastest in our test, questioned our methods - which were not scientific - saying Koolatron internal tests show the units consistently cool 40 degrees below room temperature.
Avanti, which kept its cool longest, said our test proved its product works as promised - saying it is designed to keep food cool to room temperatures of 80 degrees.
Experts say it is very difficult to tell the difference between items cooled at a potentially dangerous 50 degrees and a safe 40 degrees using touch and recommend consumers use a thermometer to test all refrigerators.