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Putting the freeze on food

September 15, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

Food that is properly handled and stored at zero degrees or colder will remain safe during a lengthy time in the freezer - but its quality will deteriorate as time passes.

"People think you can freeze indefinitely. That's a fallacy," said Judy Stains, culinary arts instructor at the James Rumsey Technical Institute in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Exceeding recommended guidelines for frozen food shelf life can affect tenderness, flavor, smell, juiciness and color, according to information from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition at www.csfan.fda.gov on the Web.

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Freezing does not affect nutrient levels, according to the organization. Freezer burn might affect taste and color, but it does not render food unsafe. The grayish-brown, leathery spots on frozen food occur when air reaches the food's surface and dries out the product - happening most often when food is not securely wrapped in air-tight packaging. Cut away these dried, discolored areas either before or after cooking the food, according to the Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition.

The organization provides the following guidelines for safe food storage in the freezer.

· Check regularly with a refrigerator/freezer thermometer to make sure the freezer temperature is at least zero degrees.

· Tightly wrap foods to be frozen. When freezing food in plastic bags, push all the air out before sealing. Stains suggests wrapping foods to be frozen in heavy-duty freezer paper, folding and creasing the paper so all air is released, and sealing tightly with tape. Vacuum-sealed frozen food products on the market have a longer shelf life than their counterparts, added Ron Berger, culinary instructor at the Franklin County Career and Technology Center in Chambersburg, Pa.

· Label packages with the name of the food item and the date it was put in the freezer.

· Don't overcrowd the freezer so air can't circulate.

Stains advises rotating frozen foods to keep older items up front.

The presence of ice crystals surrounding frozen food might indicate a recent power outage, she said. Freezer owners might have no other way of knowing their power went out if it's back on when they arrive home.

A full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) if the door remains closed, according to information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service at www.fsis.usda.gov on the Web. If an appliance thermometer was kept in the freezer, read the temperature when the power comes back on. If the appliance thermometer reads 40 degrees or below, the food is safe and may be refrozen, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service.

If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, check each package of food to determine the safety. Food that still contains internal ice crystals or remains at a temperature of 40 degrees or colder is safe to refreeze. Frozen food items that have been above 40 degrees for two hours or longer should be discarded. Never taste food that looks or smells strange, according to information from the Partnership for Food Safety Education at www.fightbac.org.

When in doubt, throw it out, the nonprofit group advises.

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