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Food Safety an Important Issue During Winter Storm Preparation

Mechele R. Dillard's picture

As a major winter storm hits the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reminds people that food safety should be at the top of their safety checklist list if the power goes out in their homes for an extended period of time.

With a major winter storm crossing the United States today, hitting some areas as snow and some as thunderstorms, at least 20 states are looking at potential problems, including possible power outages. Do not add to your problems by eating questionable food!

Emergencies can happen, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reminds us. When they do, the best strategy is to already have a plan in place. This includes knowing the proper food and water safety precautions to take if flooding/power outages do occur. The FDA suggests preparation tips consumers should consider following for their safety and the safety of their families before emergencies hit, as well as tips for dealing with power outages after they happen. Preparation is a key component for keeping food safe and uncontaminated. A few simple suggestions can keep you and your family from succumbing to potential illness due to food contamination. Prepare while you can by taking the following steps:

  • Make sure you have appliance thermometers in your refrigerator and freezer.
  • Check to ensure that the freezer temperature is at or below 0 °F and the refrigerator is at or below 40 °F.
  • In case of a power outage, the appliance thermometers will indicate the temperatures in the refrigerator and freezer to help you determine if the food is safe.
  • Freeze containers of water for ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator, or coolers in case the power goes out. If your normal water supply is contaminated or unavailable, the melting ice will also supply drinking water.
  • Freeze refrigerated items such as leftovers, milk, and fresh meat and poultry that you may not need immediately. This helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.
  • Group food together in the freezer. This helps the food stay cold longer.
  • Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerated food cold if the power will be out for more than 4 hours.
  • Purchase or make ice cubes in advance and store in the freezer for use in the refrigerator or in a cooler. Freeze gel packs ahead of time for use in coolers.
  • Check out local sources to know where dry ice and block ice can be purchased, just in case.
  • Store food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water in case of flooding.
  • Make sure to have a supply of bottled water stored where it will be as safe as possible from flooding.
  • During an emergency, should you use bottled water containers to hold non-food substances like gasoline, please dispose of them after use and do not recycle them. Additionally, should you find that your bottled water has an odor, do not drink or use the water. Instead, dispose of it, or if applicable call your bottled water provider to make arrangements to get a replacement.

When the power in your home goes out, the FDA suggests taking certain steps both during and after the emergency. When the power initially goes out, the FDA suggests these basic tips for keeping food safe:

  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature.
  • The refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours if it is unopened.
  • A full freezer will keep the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) if the door remains closed.
  • Buy dry or block ice to keep the refrigerator as cold as possible if the power is going to be out for a prolonged period of time. Fifty pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic foot fully-stocked freezer cold for two days.
  • If you plan to eat refrigerated or frozen meat, poultry, fish or eggs while it is still at safe temperatures, it's important that each item is thoroughly cooked to the proper temperature to assure that any foodborne bacteria that may be present is destroyed. However, if at any point the food was above 40 °F for 2 hours or more — discard it.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables with water from a safe source before eating.
  • For infants, try to use prepared, canned baby formula that requires no added water. When using concentrated or powdered formulas, prepare with bottled water if the local water source is potentially contaminated.

When the power to your home has been down for an extended period of time, you should not simply assume the food in your fridge and freezer is safe when the power comes back! After power has been restored to your home, the FDA says it will be necessary to determine the safety of your remaining food, and suggests you take these steps:

  • If an appliance thermometer was kept in the freezer, check the temperature when the power comes back on. If the freezer thermometer reads 40°F or below, the food is safe and may be refrozen.
  • If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, check each package of food to determine its safety. You can't rely on appearance or odor. If the food still contains ice crystals or is 40 °F or below, it is safe to refreeze or cook.
  • Refrigerated food should be safe as long as the power was out for no more than 4 hours and the refrigerator door was kept shut. Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs or leftovers) that has been above 40°F for two hours or more.
  • Keep in mind that perishable food such as meat, poultry, seafood, milk, and eggs that are not kept adequately refrigerated or frozen may cause illness if consumed, even when they are thoroughly cooked.

For more food safety and emergency situation information, watch the video below, and visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration online.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Video: U.S. Food and Drug Administration

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