The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) has advice for Virginians about food safety before, during and after power outages that may be caused by Hurricane Sandy. Sandy appears to be on track to cause power outages in eastern Virginia, and depending on the track she takes up the east coast, throughout the entire state.
VDACS’ food safety experts have a lot of advice, but their no. 1 tip is, “when in doubt, throw it out.” Second to that is, throw out suspect contents of your refrigerator and check food in your freezer carefully to be sure it is still safe to eat when power is restored.
They also suggest some actions consumers can take prior to a storm to help prevent spoilage or ruined food. People who have large, chest type freezers should make certain that the freezer is full. If it is not, they can freeze containers of water to fill unused space and then if the power goes out, throw a blanket, rug or some other insulating materials over the freezer. A full freezer that is not opened should maintain safe temperatures for several days.
A smaller freezer in a refrigerator will not maintain safe temperatures as long as a chest freezer, but if it is full and not opened, food could remain safe for a couple of days.
After the storm, VDACS’ food inspectors will inspect food processors, grocery stores and other retail stores in affected areas to ensure food safety. However, individual consumers also need to be aware that the potential for food borne illness at home grows every day that the power is out.
VDACS offers the following basic tips for keeping food safe to eat during a power outage:
Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature.
The refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours if it is unopened. With that window having passed, consumers will need to discard most of the items in the refrigerator.
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 keep 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 is important to cook each item thoroughly to the proper temperature to assure that any food borne bacteria that may be present is destroyed. However, if at any point the food was above 40° F for two 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.
Once power is restored, consumers will need to determine whether their food is safe to eat using these guidelines:
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 is likely safe as long as the power was out for no more than four hours and the refrigerator door was kept shut. If the four-hour window has passed, discard any remaining perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs or leftovers.
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. Never taste food to determine its safety, and always discard any items in the refrigerator that have come into contact with raw meat juices.
The following foods are safe to consume even if they have been held above 40° F for two hours or more: hard cheeses, processed cheeses, grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, jelly, relish, mustard, olives, pickles, soy sauce, barbecue sauce, fruit pies, bread, rolls, cakes, muffins, fruit juices, canned fruits, whole fresh fruits and raw vegetables except cut greens and cut tomatoes.
For more detailed information regarding which food items are safe to consume after an extended power outage, go to www.foodsafety.gov or www.foodsafetyinfosheets.com.