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Tips for food safety during power outage

June 27, 2007|By LYNN LITTLE

Violent storms can happen quickly and unexpectedly during the summer. When that happens, many people wonder about the safety of refrigerated and frozen foods if their home has been without power.

Monitoring food storage temperatures can be especially important then. At the same time, opening freezer and refrigerator doors during an outage should be kept to a minimum. Food-safety experts recommend checking food storage temperatures every four hours.

The key temperature is 40 degrees. So any refrigerated or thawed food that is still below 40 degrees is safe to use or to be refrozen. If the temperature has been above 40 degrees for more than two hours, the food should not be used.

Food stored in a freezer that is full or nearly full during a power outage might retain food quality for two to four days. Food stored in a freezer that is one-half or less full might retain quality for one to two days without power.

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The time frame also can depend on the type of food stored. For example, a freezer used mostly to store meat will stay cold longer than one used to store a variety of foods.

If a power outage is likely to be lengthy, homeowners might want to check for space available in a friend's or neighbor's refrigerator or freezer that is not affected by the outage. Storing food in an ice chest also can be an alternative for a limited time.

In the refrigerator, foods that can spoil quickly include any raw meats; leftovers or mixtures, such as a meat or poultry salad; dairy products, such as cottage cheese; and any egg products.

Here are some tips on popular, perishable foods:

· Raw, chopped meats, like hamburger, spoil quickly. Pork, fish and poultry spoil quickly, too. Dispose of these foods if they have been in a well-insulated, working refrigerator without power for 12 hours or more. Do not trust your sense of smell. Food might be unsafe, even if it doesn't smell bad.

· Hard cheese usually keeps well at room temperature. Other cheeses, such as cream cheese, cottage cheese and open containers of cheese spreads, spoil quickly. Throw them out when an off flavor or a mold develops.

· Milk spoils quickly without refrigeration. Throw out spoiled milk.

· Custard, gravies, creamed foods, chopped meats, poultry and seafood sandwich fillings spoil quickly when unrefrigerated. They are ideal growing places for organisms that can make you sick. Dispose of these foods if they have warmed to higher than 40 degrees or room temperature. Spoilage is hard to detect because they might not smell or taste bad.

Being mindful of food quality is particularly important after a power outage. For example, the presence of ice crystals can mean that frozen food is still safe. A thawed or soft spot, an off odor or a leaky package are signals that food should be discarded.

If food is being cooked when a power outage occurs, consider the length of the power outage. Also, monitor the temperature of the cooked or partially cooked food with a food thermometer. If an outage is brief, you might be able to continue cooking the food to a safe-to-eat temperature, but the familiar advice is still good advice: "When in doubt, throw it out."

More information on food safety and storage is available on the Food and Drug Administration site at www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/fsdisas.html and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture site at www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Severe_Storms_and_Hurricanes_Guide/index.asp. You also can call the U.S. Department of Agriculture meat and poultry hot line, 1-888-674-6854.

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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