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Keep food safe during an emergency

LINCOLN, Neb. – From ice storms to thunderstorms, when severe weather strikes it’s important to remember basic food safety information if there are power outages and other problems, said a University of Nebraska-Lincoln food safety specialist.

Power outages can occur at any time of the year, said Julie Albrecht, UNL food safety specialist in the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. When Nebraskans have to deal with power outages, storing cold foods and making sure they stay safe should be a priority.

“After a storm has knocked out electricity, it often takes from a few hours to several days for electricity to be restored,” Albrecht said. “Without electricity or a cold source, the food inside your fridge or freezer can become unsafe. Bacteria in food grows rapidly in the ‘temperature danger zone’ between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. People can become sick if they eat foods that have set out for more than two hours at these temperatures.”

To prepare for a possible weather emergency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends having these things at the ready:

– Keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer. This will indicate the temperature in the fridge or freezer and help determine the safety of food.

– Make sure the freezer is at zero degrees Fahrenheit or below and the fridge at 40 degrees or below.

– Freeze containers of water for ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator or coolers after the power is out.

– Freeze refrigerated items such as leftovers, milk and fresh meat and poultry that may not be needed immediately – this helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.

– Plan ahead and know where dry ice and block ice can be purchased.

– Store food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water in case of flooding.

– Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerator food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours. Purchase or make ice cubes and store in the freezer for use in the refrigerator or in a cooler. Freeze gel packs ahead of time for use in coolers.

– Group food together in the freezer – this helps the food stay cold longer.

After the weather emergency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends doing these things:

– Keep the fridge or freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain cold temperature.

– The fridge will keep food safely cold for about four hours if it is unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 if it is half full) if the door remains closed.

– Discard refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items after four hours without power.

– Food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40 degrees or below when checked with a food thermometer.

– Never taste a food to determine its safety.

– Obtain dry or block ice to keep the fridge and freezer 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 full freezer for two days.

– If the power has been out for several days, check the temperature of the freezer with an appliance thermometer. If it reads 40 degrees or below, the food is safe to refreeze.

– If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, check each package for safety. If it still contains ice crystals, it is safe.

– Drink only bottled water if flooding has occurred.

– Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come in contact with flood water. Discard wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers.

– Undamaged, commercially prepared foods in all-metal cans and retort packages (for example, flexible, shelf-stable juice or seafood pouches) can be saved. More information is available at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Keeping_Food_Safe_During_an_Emergency/index.asp.

– 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.

– And, when in doubt, throw it out!

Albrecht also says that if temperatures are below 40 degrees food can be stored outside. Be sure foods are stored in a safe place such as a patio, deck or unheated garage and in coolers or containers that prevent animals and rodents from getting into them.

However, if outdoor temperatures are above the 40 degree mark, storing food outside will not be safe.


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