The loss of power from hurricane winds, fire or flood could endanger the safety of your food within as little as four hours, cautions an expert with the LSU AgCenter.
“Knowing how to determine if food is safe and how to keep it safe is one part of planning for an emergency,” says LSU AgCenter food and nutrition expert Dr. Annrose Guarino.
The food safety expert says you should always keep meat, poultry, fish and eggs refrigerated – and keep frozen foods frozen, if possible, when the power is out. While power is off, keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed to maintain low temperatures, she stresses.
“A refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about four hours if it is unopened,” Guarino says, adding, “A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours – or for 24 hours if it is half full – as long as the door remains closed.”
In addition, Guarino says 50 pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic-foot freezer that’s full for two days.
“Plan ahead, and know where dry and block ice can be purchased,” the LSU AgCenter food expert advises.
Coolers are a great help for keeping food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours. Guarino recommends having a couple on hand along with frozen gel packs.
She also says when your freezer is not full, keep items close together, since this also helps the food stay cold.
“Food thermometers and appliance thermometers will help you know if the food is at safe temperatures,” says Guarino, who advises that you keep appliance thermometers in the refrigerator and freezer at all times. “An appliance thermometer will always indicate the temperature in the refrigerator and freezer no matter how long the power has been out.”
Refrigerator temperature should be 40 degrees F or lower. Freezer temperature should be zero degrees F or lower.
“If you’re not sure a particular food is cold enough, take its temperature with a food thermometer,” Guarino suggests.
If a flood threatens or strikes, make sure your food storage shelves are safely out of the way of contaminated water. Discard all food that comes in contact with floodwaters, including canned goods.
“It is impossible to know if containers were damaged or the seal compromised,” Guarino says.
In addition, she says to discard wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers that may have been contaminated during storms or flooding. “There is no way to clean these items safely if they have come in contact with contaminated floodwaters,” Guarino says.
As for other items in your kitchen, Guarino says your cleanup efforts should include thoroughly washing metal pans, ceramic dishes and utensils with hot, soapy water and sanitizing them by boiling them in clean water or by immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 teaspoon of chlorine bleach per quart of water.
Another precaution from the expert concerns water.
“Drink only approved or chlorinated water,” Guarino cautions, saying, “Consider all water from wells, cisterns and other delivery systems in the disaster area unsafe until tested.”
The LSU AgCenter expert says to purchase bottled water, if necessary, until you are certain your water supply is safe. Also, keep a three-day supply of water or a minimum of 3 gallons of water per person on hand.
Above all, Guarino cautions that taste and smell aren’t the ways to determine if food is safe.
"Never taste food to determine its safety!" Guarino warns, adding, “Remember, you can’t rely on appearance or odor.”
The expert says you need to evaluate each food item separately but that thermometers can help.
“If you kept an appliance thermometer in the freezer, read the temperature immediately when the power comes back on,” she says. “If it reads 40 degrees F or lower, the food is safe and may be refrozen.”
If you did not keep a thermometer in the freezer, examine each package of food to determine its safety. “If the food still contains ice crystals or is 40 degrees F or lower, it is safe to refreeze,” Guarino advises.
On the other hand, she says to discard any perishable food, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and leftovers that have been higher than 40 degrees F for two hours. And she stresses that probably will be true of most food in your refrigerator if the power was off for more than four hours.
“You also need to be sure to discard any items in either the freezer or the refrigerator that have come into contact with raw meat juices,” Guarino says.
Keep in mind, as well, that partial thawing and refreezing may reduce the quality of some food – although the food will remain safe to eat.
For additional food safety information about meat, poultry or egg products, call the toll-free U.S. Department of Agriculture Meat and Poultry Hotline at (800) 535-4555 or for the hearing-impaired at (800) 256-7072. The hotline is staffed by food safety experts weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time. Food safety recordings can be heard 24 hours a day using a touch-tone phone.
Guarino also recommends contacting an agent in your parish LSU AgCenter Extension office to learn more about keeping food safe when a disaster strikes – or visiting www.lsuagcenter.com for general information about food safety and nutrition.