Several thousand people in Louisiana and all along the gulf coast will be without electricity in dealing with Hurricane Isaac and its aftermath, or any other natural disaster. The last thing they need is a bout of food poisoning in an already difficult, if not emergency, situation.
Time and temperature are the keys to food safety
Bacteria are to blame for food spoilage. Actually it is their waste that is to blame. Given the right environment these little buggers multiply at an amazing rate. Temperature is the critical in keeping food safe to eat for the longest time. The danger zone for most foods is between 41º and 140ºF. This is the temperature range where bacteria are most active. Here are some links for more information on safe food handling practices.
Additionally foods can be technically spoiled without showing any obvious signs. You will realize it was spoiled about 2 hours after you have eaten it.
Time is also another major factor in food born illnesses. Having a beef roast out on a kitchen counter for an hour or two poses little threat, but any longer than that puts the meat at risk. Also leaving food at room temperature for any amount of time significantly reduces its overall safe shelf life. Contrary to popular belief freezing does not reverse spoilage. Once it is spoiled, it is spoiled.
Storing food without electricity
During hurricanes, and I have been through quite a few, it is a common practice to keep refrigerated foods in a portable cooler, or ice chest as we call them down here. While this is a good thing to do, there are some safe practices you should observe.
Keep the foods surrounded by ice, or freezer packs. Let’s say you have a package of meat where half is in ice and half is not. The portion that isn’t could easily be in the danger zone while the other half is safe. The problem is that food doesn’t partially spoil. If you were to unknowingly cook that meat you, and your family, could have an unwanted date with the toilet.
Limit the amount of times the ice chest lid is opened. Each time the lid is opened a huge amount of hot air is introduced which greatly reduces the lifespan of your ice.
Keep canned drinks and bottled water in a separate ice chest. Drinks are consumed much more than food is cooked, and these drinks are not temperature sensitive.
Note: This does not apply to dairy products (milk) and non-pasteurized juices. Milk loses one day of shelf life for every hour it is at room temperature.
Place fruits and vegetables in zipper type plastic bags instead of placing them directly into the ice.
Drain water and re-ice as frequently as practical. While icy water is very cold it is still warmer than ice itself. Keeping the water in raises the overall temperature, and provides an excellent breeding ground fall all matter of pathogens.
Keeping food with limited electricity
Many people, yours truly included, use a generator for electricity in emergency situations. Most that do this do not have a generator capable of running their entire house so only critical use appliances and lights are used.
It is possible to maintain safe temperatures in your refrigerator and/or freezer by cycling their running times. Running these appliances for as little as an hour every three to four hours and limiting access should keep your refrigerator at 40 ºF or below and your freezer at 0ºF or below. Use a thermometer to verify temperatures.
Turn everything else off except for a radio or one television and plug in the fridge and freezer. This will ensure that the generator can supply uninterrupted, constant wattage power.
Limit access to the fridge by asking everyone in the house if they want something at the same time. That way you only open the door less frequently.
Cooking food in an emergency situation
Generally speaking cooking is done by propane during an emergency as an electric stove draws too much energy for the average home owner’s generator to supply.
If you are cooking by portable gas stove use the quickest cooking methods you can. Now is not the time for low and slow as the food temperatures will be at or over the danger zone thresh holes, think stir frying, pan frying, sautéing, etc.
Avoid boiling as it requires too much gas to bring the water to a boil.
Grilling is another viable option for cooking as it is quick and fairly efficient.
Use common sense
There is a saying which states, “When in doubt, throw is out.” There may be no better guide to food safety in an emergency situation. Food born illnesses are generally not serious and usually result in extended bathroom stays and feeling very sick.
However food born illnesses can be very serious requiring a hospital visit at a time when that may not be possible. People with a compromised immune system are especially susceptible so don’t chance it.