By: Candess Zona-Mendola
Hurricane Harvey made landfall last night in Rockport, Texas, a city near Corpus Christie, about 200 hundred miles away from my home in Houston. As I write, our city is being plummeted by the serious right hook of the storm – the “dirty part” as the media is calling it. As we brace for major flooding in the coming days and watch for tornados in various parts of the city, our thoughts and prayers go out to our fellow Texans in Rockport, Corpus Christi, in the coastal towns, and for our fellow Houstonians.
But we are prepared and organized. The Texas state and local government officials are keeping us up-to-date as the storm moves through. As I talk to my neighbors and fellow Houstonians, food safety questions are at the forefront of their minds. I am happy to report that there is still time to keep food safety on your radar. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and Texas Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have offered advice, information, and recommendations to Texans, and others who may be affected by this storm.
Yesterday, on August 24, 2017, the USDA provided some helpful tips to those who may be affected by power outages and flooding in the affected areas.
LOSS OF POWER
There is no question that power outages are bad news for food. Food waste and spoilage is a real concern in areas without power. This only ups the risk of foodborne illness – and no one wants a trip to the emergency room in the middle of a hurricane. But you can still prevent the worst by following the USDA’s tips, as follows:
If you still have power –
- Keep your appliance thermometers in both the refrigerator and the freezer. To keep food safe, temperatures should be 40°F or lower in the refrigerator and 0°F or lower in the freezer.
- You can freeze water in large plastic storage bags or small freezer-proof containers to act as additional cold sources.
- By freezing any items in your refrigerator, you can keep them at safe temperatures for longer periods of time. Meats, milk, some vegetables and fruit, even cheese can be frozen. While you are at it, keep these foods together so they will keep their temperatures longer.
- If you have a cooler, keep it handy. You can use the ice from your refrigerator to keep food if your power is out for longer than 4 hours. Don’t forget to keep an eye on those temperatures!
If your power is out –
- Try to keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed. Without power, a refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours, but only if the door is kept closed. A freezer full of frozen food will hold its temperature for about 48 hours. One that is half full will hold these temperatures for a day.
- If you can get to a store, dry or block ice may help you. About 50 pounds of dry ice can keep food at its proper temperatures in a full refrigerator for about two days.
- Remember, 2 hours is the magic timeframe. If food is left out for longer than 2 hours, in temperatures between 40°F and 140°F, throw it out.
- Remember, the food in your freezer that is partially or completely thawed can be safely refrozen BUT only if it still contains ice crystals or is 40°F or below.
It is a good idea to check each item separately, ensuring temperature. If an item is warm, has an odd odor or look, or has been sitting too long, throw it out. The USDA advises everyone heed to the “when in doubt, throw it out” mantra.
Flooding in Texas and likely Louisiana is inevitable. Many residents may also have flood waters enter their homes. As we prepare for the worst, it is a good reminder to all to make sure food and safe water are stored off the ground and preferably several feet off the ground, in the event of an interior flood. The USDA has addressed some tips for food safety during floods as well. According to their website:
- “Do not eat any food that may have come into contact with flood water—this would include raw fruits and vegetables, cartons of milk or eggs.”
- “Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with flood water. Food containers that are not waterproof include those packaged in plastic wrap or cardboard, or those with screw‐caps, snap lids, pull tops and crimped caps. Flood waters can enter into any of these containers and contaminate the food inside. Also, discard cardboard juice/milk/baby formula boxes and home-canned foods if they have come in contact with flood water, because they cannot be effectively cleaned and sanitized.”
- “Inspect canned foods and discard any food in damaged cans. Can damage is shown by swelling, leakage, punctures, holes, fractures, extensive deep rusting or crushing/denting severe enough to prevent normal stacking or opening with a manual, wheel‐type can opener.”
KEEPING “IN THE KNOW”
As those affected keep an eye on the weather and flood levels, the USDA will also provide updates. You can follow them on Twitter @USDAFoodSafety and Facebook to keep up to date on more food safety information as the days pass.
WHAT IF I RUN OUT OF FOOD?
If you run out of safe food and water in Texas, our government has your back. The HHS posted on its website:
“HHS is also ready to provide emergency SNAP food benefits to Texans facing shortages because of spoilage, difficulties in transporting food to affected areas or electricity outages. Special eligibility offices will be set up in the areas affected, and ice will be available at various community centers.”
I WANT MORE INFORMATION
For those wanting a little more information, you can download the USDA’s Guide to food safety during severe storms here, you can watch the USDA’s video on Food Safety During Power Outages here, or you can call the USDA’s Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888MPHotline. The USDA has also initiated a system where you can chat live with a food safety specialist at AskKaren.gov – in English and Spanish from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday. If you need help outside of these hours, AskKaren.gov will be available 24 hours, 7 days a week.
We at UnsafeFoods are keeping those in Texas, Louisiana, and other affected areas in our thoughts during this severe storm. Stay safe everyone!