Food Safety During Power Outages
Our friends in south Texas have been through a lot of turmoil with hurricanes and flooding over the past couple of years. Although Hopkins County and northeast Texas have not seen storms to that extent, we do have power outages from time to time. When that happens, knowing what to do with the contents of the refrigerator and freezer could prevent the consumption of unsafe food.
Keeping the refrigerator or freezer closed as much as possible will help retain the cold air. Repeatedly opening the door once power is out allows cold air to escape quickly and negate any insulation of the food. Anything fresh or perishable like meat, poultry, eggs, fish, fluid milk and even juice that has, or is suspected to have been, sitting above 40ᵒF for more than two hours should be thrown out.
If you open the fridge and can smell or see the evidence of food spoilage, immediately start disposing of those culprits – pretty much anything minimally processed or fresh. Being aware of the temperature danger zone is key: perishable foods that have been sitting at 40ᵒF to 140ᵒF for more than two hours have the likelihood of bacteria doubling. How long before frozen foods go bad? Depending on the freezer, how well insulated it is, how full it is, what is in it, and how warm it actually gets, the timeframe will vary. Http://Foodsafety.gov states that if a freezer is left closed for some time after power outage, later opened and meat, poultry, and other foods are still visibly frozen (ice crystals still evident or frozen to the touch), those items can be either re-frozen or brought to thaw for immediate cooking and serving.
Another question that comes to mind is how long refrigerators can be off. Some of the same factors apply – how full the fridge is, outside air temperature, etc. Refrigerated foods will not last as long as frozen. Again, keep the temperature danger zone in mind. While proper cooking of fresh meat, poultry, eggs and fish may render them microbiologically safe, there are organisms that may produce toxic compounds while they grown on food. Remember, if in doubt, thrown it out.
So what do you need to look for? There are a number of pieces of evidence to evaluate for signs that food has become unusable, according to Dr. Matt Taylor, associate professor in the Collage of Agriculture and Live Sciences at Texas A&M University. “Unfortunately, food that is microbiologically unsafe will not show obvious signs of it lack of safety. The signs of spoilage include discoloration, development of strong, displeasing odor, or evidence of excess gas production that can be seen when a package deforms due to the excess gas production. Other signs of spoilage include a cheesy odor, texture breakdown or loss, or the production of acids by fermentation. For fresh meat, poultry, fish and eggs, strong odors , discoloration of the meat (like gray or brown), and excess juices in the pad indicate protein breakdown. Milk will potentially show gas production, separation into curds and whey fractions, and typically present strong odors. Produce my discolor and show evidence of softening. Although not as common in northeast Texas, we can prepare for power outages by stocking up on non-perishable foods – canned goods, crackers, jerky, canned tuna and chicken, etc. Be sure to have a manual can opener so you can open cans during an extended power outage. If water is a concern, you may stock up on bottled water.
When the power returns, check the status of your refrigerator and freezer foods, and again, if in doubt, throw it out. In the case of flooding, discard food if your refrigerator or freezer was submerged by floodwaters – even partially. Food is unsafe to use and must be discarded. Do not eat any food that may have come in contact with floodwater.
During the first couple of weeks of October, the Hopkins County Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Office will be undergoing some internal, much-needed repairs. We will still be open for business, but things will look different! Our staff will be working out of the front part of the building during the first phase, and the will relocate to the back classroom and my office suite during the second phase of reconstruction. We will also be short-staffed during the majority of that time, so if you try to call us and you don’t get an answer, it means we are either on the other line or have stepped away. Please call again! We have several events in October that will take us away from the office (annual LEAP Fair, Ag-in-the-Classroom, Head Start Walk & Talk program, etc.), but we can return your call if you leave a message. So please excuse our mess!
If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader – John Quincy Adams
Johanna Hicks, B.S., M.Ed.
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension
Family & Community Health Agent
P.O. Box 518
1200-B W. Houston
Sulphur Springs, TX 75483