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Dietitians Dish: Hurricane season can create food safety issues

By By Lisa Hagan
June 4, 2013 at 1:04 a.m.


Hurricane season is here, and we should review our emergency preparedness plan. Power outages and compromised drinking water are common after a severe storm hits.

During the loss of electricity, our perishable food can become unsafe to eat. Knowing how to keep our family protected from unsafe food during an emergency should be a part of our preparation. Storing nonperishable food is prudent, but what do we do with the food that is still in our refrigerators? Recognizing what is considered safe to eat or drink is important.

After any severe weather emergency, our drinking water can become unsafe to consume. Most commercially bottled water has an indefinite shelf life if it is packaged according to the FDA standards. Check bottled water for an expiration date.

Bottled water that is packaged according to the FDA Standards will not have an expiration date. Do not drink water past the expiration date. Discard water if it is cloudy or has small algae particles. When reusing plastic bottles to store water, be sure it is made from food-grade plastics. Beverages that held juice, soda, punch or water can be reused. Avoid using plastic milk bottles. It is difficult to wash out the milk protein, increasing the risk for bacterial growth. Be careful with glass bottles as they can easily break.

If stored drinking water is not available, most health departments will issue radio announcements on the safety of the tap (municipal) water. Follow your area health department's advice. If communication with the health department is lost, deem the tap water to be unsafe. The tap water should be purified before drinking. Include a plan on how to purify your water if it becomes unsafe to drink. Water can be boiled, distilled or chemically treated.

Most health authorities suggest that water be heated to a rolling boil for one to three minutes before using. Water that is stored in the bathtub should not be used for drinking. Only use the bathtub water for hygiene use. Make sure each member of the family has 1 gallon of drinking water available per day. Store a three-day supply of drinking water per person.

Try to keep food at the proper temperature to ensure safety. Bacteria in food grow faster when held in temperatures between the ranges of 40 to 140 degrees. Do not rely on the appearance or odor of food to determine its safety. When in doubt, throw it out. Your emergency list should include food or appliance thermometers.

Keep one in the refrigerator, freezer and other insulated coolers. It is best to leave the thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer. Refrigerated food should be safe for four hours after a power outage if the door is kept closed.

Discard any perishable food such as meats, milk, eggs or leftovers if they have been held greater than 40 degrees for longer than two hours. Treat insulated ice coolers the same way you treat food in the refrigerator. Remember to always discard food that has come into contact with raw meats.

The freezer temperature should be below 0 degrees. If the freezer temperature stays below 40 degrees, food can safely be refrozen when the electricity is back on. When a freezer thermometer is not available, check each package individually.

If the package has ice crystals on it, then it is safe to refreeze. A full freezer can stay cold for 48 hours While a half-full freezer stays cold for 24 hours. Dry ice can keep food cold, if available. However, dry ice should never be placed in a running refrigerator and special precautions in handling it should be considered before using.

Ensuring safe drinking water and food temperatures are just a few ways to protect our families after a hurricane. Food safety includes many other considerations. For more information on hurricane preparation and food safety, go to "Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency" at usda.gov.

Lisa Hagan is a registered and licensed dietitian with DeTar Health Systems. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.

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