When in doubt, throw it out!

With end-of-the-world-like weather pummeling much of the heartland of this country with tornadoes and dam-busting rain and parts of the East Coast enduring its own meteorological escapades, federal food safety experts warn that caution has to be used in figuring out what’s safe to cook and eat.

Those of us who have survived hurricane seasons in the South know the lengthy power failures that often accompany these annual events require strict adherence to the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.

But the spectacularly violent weather that keeps thrashing the Midwest has downed more power lines and substations than most emergency planners had anticipated and is leading to power outages lasting for days.

“As flood waters rise and during times of emergency, food safety can be a critical public health risk,” says Al Almanza, the boss of USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service. “In the effected areas, the American public should be aware that information is readily available to help them protect their food supply before and after tragic natural events.”

Here are some things the government reminds you to do if you think you are going to lose power:

· Make sure you have an accurate appliance thermometer and make sure that the freezer is at 0°F or below and the refrigerator is at 40°F or below.

· Freeze gel packs and containers of water for ice ahead of time for use in coolers or to help keep food cold in the freezer or refrigerator after the power is out.

· Freeze refrigerated items such as leftovers, milk and fresh meat and poultry that you may not need immediately — this helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.

· Determine where dry ice and block ice can be purchased and have coolers on hand to keep refrigerator food cold if the power fails.

· Store food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water in case of flooding.

· Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature.

Here are some numbers to keep in mind. The refrigerator – with its doors closed – will keep food safely cold for about 4 hours if left unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours, but only 24 hours if it is half full.

When your power is restored discard refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items after 4 hours without power.

Remember, food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40°F or below when checked with a food thermometer.

Most importantly, the six words you must remember are: When in doubt, throw it out!

Note: For more information on drinking water safety during weather emergencies, access the FSIS publication “Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency.” Here’s a link to it.


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