Elizabeth S. Reames, Claesgens, Mark A.
If you are without power because of Hurricane Katrina, keep in mind the food in your refrigerator or freezer has a limited lifespan – as short as four hours, according to LSU AgCenter nutritionist Dr. Beth Reames.
If you’re in doubt about whether it’s still safe to eat, throw it out, Reames stresses, adding that you don’t want to further complicate your plight by running the risk of food poisoning.
"What this means for people affected by this storm is that the food probably already is spoiled – if they don’t have a generator up and running or their power back by now," Reames explained. "Even then, they need to make sure the food was properly handled and didn’t get too warm during the power outage."
For now and in the future, the LSU AgCenter nutritionist and food safety expert offers a variety of tips.
"Refrigerated foods should be safe as long as your power isn’t off for more than two hours," Reames said. "That’s dependent on a variety of factors – including keeping the door closed.
"Although many people don’t have a thermometer, the general factor is that anything like meat, poultry, fish, eggs or leftovers that have been above 40 degrees for more than two hours should be thrown out," Reames said.
The same types of rules apply to items such as mayonnaise. But the common-sense rules if you don’t have a thermometer are to throw items out if you’re not sure how cool they were and the outage was longer than a couple of hours.
"Food in your freezer can remain frozen longer – as much as 24 hours or even up to 48 hours – but that duration depends on specific conditions," Reames said, adding, "For it to stay frozen that long, the freezer door must remain closed, the freezer must be full or almost full, the temperature outside must be moderate and the freezer must be large and well insulated."
A half-full freezer will keep foods frozen 24 hours, according to Reames.
To extend the frozen period, Reames advises using dry ice. Put the ice in heavy paper or on boards inside the freezer or on top of packages. Allow 2.5 to 3 pounds of ice per cubic foot of space. Fifty pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic foot full freezer for two days. More dry ice will be needed in an upright freezer, because it should be placed on each shelf.
Coolers with frozen gel packs also are a great help for keeping food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours.
"Never touch dry ice with your bare hands or breathe the fumes," Reames cautioned. "The ice can cause severe frostbite or burns. Also, as it melts, it produces potentially toxic carbon dioxide gas."
Digital, dial or instant-read food thermometers and appliance thermometers will help you know if the food is at safe temperatures.
"If you don’t have them now, get appliance thermometers and keep them in the refrigerator and freezer at all times," Reames advised. "When the power is out, an appliance thermometer will always indicate the temperature in the refrigerator and freezer no matter how long the power has been out."
The refrigerator temperature should be 40 F or below, and the freezer at 0 F or below. Another tip is that if you’re not sure a particular food is cold enough, take its temperature with a food thermometer.
"Once frozen food thaws and reaches 40 F, it should be cooked and eaten within two hours," the nutritionist said, adding, "Otherwise, throw it out."
After two hours, bacteria multiply to unsafe levels, according to Reames.
Seafood will be among the first to thaw, so it will need attention first. Also, ground meat is likely to spoil before other meats, according to Reames.
"Food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below," Reames said, stressing you will have to evaluate each item separately. "Be sure to discard any items in either the freezer or the refrigerator that have come into contact with raw meat juices."
The food safety expert said partial thawing and refreezing may reduce the quality of some food, but the food will remain safe to eat.
"The big thing to remember is that you can’t rely on appearance or odor to determine safety," the expert stressed.
Additional disaster recovery information is available at the LSU AgCenter Web site: www.lsuagcenter.com.