When Hurricane Sandy left millions of households on the Atlantic seaboard without power, we saw a lot on the news about property damage and storm cleanup. But one thing that didn’t get much mention is the very real danger of food spoilage.
Still, food poisoning has the potential to sicken thousands, many of them seriously enough to need emergency medical treatment.
US health and safety officials say that during a prolonged power outage, perishable food can spoil within 2 hours if not kept at a proper temp. And of course, food in flooded areas risk contamination from rising waters and unsanitary conditions.
If you work in the restaurant industry (or if you just keep a well-stocked fridge), here are a few precautions recommended by health authorities to prevent food spoilage and avoid food poisoning when the lights go out:
- Use ice cubes or freeze gel packs to keep food cold. You can just keep a frozen bag of water handy for when the power goes out and it will help keep items in the freezer cooler longer. In case of a power outage, place a block of ice or dry ice in your refrigerator and make sure to keep the door closed. Fifty pounds of dry ice will keep the interior of an 18-cubic-foot refrigerator adequately cold for two days.
- Freeze leftovers, milk, meat and other food items that you won’t be cooking immediately. If there’s a power outage, the frozen food will keep until the power is restored.
- Remember to keep the door of your refrigerator or freezer closed to maximize its ability to maintain a cold temperature. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an unopened refrigerator will be able to maintain the proper temperature range to keep food safe for about four hours. An unopened full freezer will maintain its temperature 48 hours; a half-full freezer, about 24 hours.
- In case your refrigerator was opened repeatedly during a power outage (or was without power for longer than four hours), its perishable contents should be discarded. Certain foods, however, are still safe to eat after being in a powerless refrigerator for two hours in temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. These include raw vegetables, herbs and spices, fresh mushrooms, fruits and juices, peanut butter, hard and processed cheeses, butter, margarine, barbecue sauces, ketchup, mustard and pickles. On the other hand, fruits that have been previously cut, fish sauce, and mayonnaise are unsafe and should be thrown out.
Extreme weather such as hurricanes produces another threat—flooding, which presents the danger of food contamination. After a flood, here are a few food-safety to-dos:
- Throw away damaged cans—better to be overly cautious than to get food poisoning.
- Discard food that has been stored in non-waterproof containers if you think it came into contact with floodwater.
- Thoroughly wash food containers with soap and hot water, making certain to remove labels (they’re good repositories of waterborne microbes). The Food and Drug Administration advises that food cans can be boiled for two minutes or soaked in bleach water (one tablespoon of liquid bleach per gallon of water) for at least 15 minutes.
- Drink only bottled water that has not come into contact with flood water. If you can’t find any, boil tap water. If the water is cloudy, filter it with a clean cloth first.