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Hurricanes and Food Safety

Keeping Food Safe After a Storm, Flood or Other Weather Emergency

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Hurricanes and Food Safety

Storms and other weather-related emergencies can lead to power outages that last anywhere from a few hours to several days.

When refrigerators and freezers lose power, it doesn't take long for the temperatures inside to climb into what is called the Food Temperature Danger Zone, between 40°F and 140°F, where harmful bacteria grow very quickly. In just a few hours, these bacteria can multiply to the point where eating the contaminated food can cause a serious case of food poisoning.

Here are a few tips to help you prepare for a loss of power from a severe weather event, and what you can do afterward to keep your food safe.

Before a Weather Emergency:

If you have advance warning of a weather emergency that could cause a power outage, you should make preparations to ensure the food in your refrigerator and freezer stay cold.

If you do lose power, you're going to need a lot of ice to keep things cold, so if you have time, purchase dry ice or block ice to use in your fridge, freezer or coolers.

Fifty pounds of dry ice will keep an 18-cubic-foot freezer cold for up to 48 hours. Just remember that every time you open the freezer, you let cold air out and warm air in, which will shorten that time significantly.

If you can't get your hands on that much block ice or dry ice, you're going to have to make do with what you have. In addition to freezing gel packs and making ice cubes, fill plastic bottles with water and freeze them, too.

If the power goes out, these frozen bottles can be used as a cold source to keep food cold in the fridge, freezer, or in insulated coolers. Also, in the event of flooding, tap water can become contaminated, so the more bottled water you've set aside beforehand, the better.

Note: Water will expand by up to 10 percent when it freezes, so make sure to leave room in the bottles to allow for this, otherwise they could burst.

If you have any fresh meat or poultry in the fridge, you can freeze them as well. They'll stay fresh longer should you lose power for more than several hours. Keep food items clustered together in the freezer, too. They'll stay cold longer that way.

You can even freeze fresh milk, but be forewarned that it won't have the same mouth feel when it thaws, as freezing and thawing can give milk a slightly grainy texture. You'll notice this less with skim and lowfat milks than with whole milks. And as with water, remember to allow for expansion when freezing milk.

After a Weather Emergency:

Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature. This goes for portable coolers, too. For more details, here's an article on keeping your cooler cool.

Food stored in your fridge will only stay cold for about four hours — less if the door has been opened. After that, perishable foods such as meat, poultry, fish and seafood, dairy and deli items, should either be cooked, consumed or thrown away.

You can visually inspect frozen food to determine its safety. If you see ice crystals, it's still safe to eat. Once food has thawed, however, you have four hours to cook it, eat it or throw it away. Don't refreeze it!

Note also that the bacteria that cause food poisoning don't change the appearance, smell or taste of foods they contaminate. So don't rely on your senses to judge whether food is safe or not. Keep in mind one of the mantras of the foodservice industry: When in doubt, throw it out.
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Also see: All About Food Safety
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