As Gulf Coast residents prepare for the possible landfall of Tropical Storm Isaac, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) urges everyone to make food safety a part of their preparation efforts. Power outages and flooding that often result from weather emergencies compromise the safety of stored food, and planning ahead can minimize the risk of foodborne illness.
Storing perishable food at proper temperatures is crucial to food safety but can become difficult if you lose electricity for your refrigerator and freezer. For those living in Tropical Storm Isaac’s projected path, USDA recommends stocking up on canned food, bottled water, batteries, and dry ice.
The publication “A Consumer’s Guide to Food Safety: Severe Storms and Hurricanes” is available at www.fsis.usda.gov/PDF/Severe_Storms_and_Hurricanes_Guide.pdf to print and keep for reference during a power outage. : Florida residents can get timely food safety information on Twitter by following @FL_FSISAlert, Mississippi residents should follow @MS_FSISAlert, and Louisiana residents can follow @LA_FSISAlert.
Steps to follow to prepare for a possible weather emergency:
- Keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer to help determine if food is safe during power outages. The refrigerator temperature should be 40° F or lower and the freezer should be 0° F or lower.
- Store food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water in case of flooding.
- Group food together in the freezer — this helps the food stay cold longer.
- 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.
- Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerator food cold if the power will be out for more than 4 hours.
- Purchase or make ice and store in the freezer for use in the refrigerator or in a cooler. Freeze gel packs ahead of time for use in coolers.
- Plan ahead and know where dry ice and block ice can be purchased.
Steps to follow if the power goes out:
- Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible.
- A refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours if you keep the door closed.
- A full freezer will keep its temperature for about 48 hours (24 hours if half-full).
- If the power is out for an extended period of time, buy dry or block ice to keep the refrigerator as cold as possible. Fifty pounds of dry ice should keep a fully-stocked 18-cubic-feet freezer cold for two days.
Steps to follow after a weather emergency:
- Check the temperature in the refrigerator and freezer. If the thermometer reads 40° F or below, the food is safe.
- If no thermometer was used in the freezer, check each package. If food still contains ice crystals or is at 40° F or below when checked with a food thermometer, it may be safely refrozen.
- Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items) that have been kept in a refrigerator or freezer above 40° F for two hours or more.
- Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with flood water. Containers that are not waterproof include those with screw-caps, snap lids, pull tops, and crimped caps. Discard wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers.
- Thoroughly wash all metal pans, ceramic dishes and utensils that came in contact with flood water with hot soapy water and sanitize by boiling them in clean water or by immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water.
- Undamaged, commercially prepared foods in all-metal cans and retort pouches (for example, flexible, shelf-stable juice or seafood pouches) can be saved. Follow the Steps to Salvage All-Metal Cans and Retort Pouches in the publication “Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency” at: www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/
- Use bottled water that has not been exposed to flood waters. If bottled water is not available, tap water can be boiled for safety.
- Never taste food to determine its safety!
- When in Doubt, throw it out!
Consumers with food safety questions can “Ask Karen,” the FSIS virtual representative available 24 hours a day at www.AskKaren.gov or m.AskKaren.gov on your smartphone. Mobile Ask Karen can also be downloaded from the Android and iTunes app store. Consumers can email, chat with a live representative, or call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline directly from the app. To use these features on the app, simply choose “Contact Us” from the menu. The live chat option and the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), are available in English and Spanish from l0 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.