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Healthy Aging

Food Safety Tips to Cope With Hurricane Irene's Aftermath

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 09/01/2011
Last Updated: 08/10/2012

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How'd you like to have the name Irene right about now? Apologies to my friends with that name. I still love you. But for many others, you'll be forever associated with a devastating hurricane that affected 65 million people and killed more than 40. Estimates run from $3 billion to $5 billion in insured damage and total losses of around $7 billion.

And as I write this, days after Irene hit, there are still over 5 million people in the eastern United States without power. I'm one of those people. Yes, while I'm lucky that our house is still standing and everyone is safe, more than anything I worry about food safety. With a refrigerator and freezer full of food, what stays and what goes? I'm tempted to throw it all out and start fresh, but in an effort to prevent waste—and at the same time, stay healthy—I did some digging and checked in with the USDA.

They say that refrigerators can keep food at a safe temperature for about four hours—if you don't open the door. It's best to keep it closed as much as possible to maintain its cold temperature. Well, that four-hour window has long passed for me, since we lost power on Saturday, so it looks like my fridge will be getting a good purging. I suppose it's an excuse to give it a good thorough scrub and stock it with fresh foods.

But I can't even say we'll have better luck with our frozen food. The USDA says that food in the freezer (if maintained at the right temperature and the freezer is full) can last for 48 hours. Cut that number in half if the freezer is only half full.

Some other helpful tips from the USDA for keeping food and kitchen supplies safe in the event of an electrical outage or flood (remember, it is hurricane season):

  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature.
  • The refrigerator 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 hours if it is half full) and 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°F or below when checked with a food thermometer.
  • Never taste a food to determine its safety!
  • Obtain dry or block ice to keep your refrigerator and freezer as cold as possible if the power is going to be out for a prolonged 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 the appliance thermometer reads 40°F or below, the food is safe to refreeze.
  • If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, check each package of food to determine its safety. If the food still contains ice crystals, the food is safe.
  • Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with flood water. Discard wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers contaminated by flood water.
  • 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 hermetically sealed 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/Keeping_Food_Safe_During_an_Emergency/index.asp
  • Use bottled water that has not been exposed to flood waters. If bottled water is not available, tap water can be boiled for safety.

Are you hoping that brand new chunk of your favorite cheese or never-opened container of that gourmet ice cream is still salvageable? Think a taste will tell you the answer? Don't even consider it. Remember the old saying: When in doubt, throw it out.

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Things like pickles, mustard, and other pickled items should be fine, though, right? (And I must admit, I thumb my nose at the USDA recommendation that eggs MUST be refrigerated...)

That is a great question, Kris. I did not see anything about foods like that, but I'd think that pickled items should be fine, yes, since the pickling preserves things.

Hope you survived Irene! We were fortunate not to lose power, but I lived through Boston's water scare a few years ago and boiling water was a royal pain, so I can't imagine going several days without power. I learned from that experience to keep a few gallons of water in the fridge just in case. Bonus: the fridge runs more efficiently when it's full!

I remember that water scare a few years back. That had to be difficult. And thanks for the tip about keeping some water in the fridge. That can help keep things cooler for sure.

Excellent article and advice. I'm so thankful for our generator. It's gotten us through several power outages.

I agree, LL, generators are wonderful - until they run out of gas, like ours did. Bad situation, trying to get the gas company on the phone in the wake of a hurricane.

Great tips, especially never taste a food to determine its safety. Drives me nuts when I see crime shows on TV and the detective will see a white powder and put a little on the tip of their tongue. Yep, it's cocaine. But what if it was poison?!

Funny, Jane. I guess we shouldn't use those detectives as role models ...at least not in the taste-testing department.

We lost power for three days on Cape Cod. We have one of those new energy-efficient refrigerators. They are maddening because there is less space for storing food, since there is so much more insulation. However, this insulation really helped keep the food cold during the power outage. I found that "ice crystals" tip really interesting. I was wondering, when I went through our freezer yesterday.

I guess you have to sacrifice space for efficiency, but it sounds like it was helpful in preserving your food!

Sorry you are still without power. It's crazy! I would throw everything out and start over at this point. In a way, that's a good feeling and probably not a bad idea to do anyway, albeit expensive.

PS: I think you're also not supposed to smell food to see if it's bad...some emit toxic fumes when they decay.

Thanks for the tip about not smelling food. Besides being very unpleasant (ugh...sour milk) I didn't know there were any other downsides.

Smart post with good info to hold onto. This falls into the public service category.

I really hope you won't have a reason to need it. But Mother Nature sometimes forces these things.

Hummm... we did drink the milk after about, um, 20 or so hours without power. We're still here.

Really? Glad you survived it. Apparently, the estimates must vary a *bit*!

I hope by the time you're reading this you have power again. Good reminders here about food safety--you never seem to think about it until it becomes an issue.


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