Food safety during emergencies

Natural disasters can threaten food safety and cause food loss for operations like cafeterias, food pantries, hospitals, restaurants, and grocery stores. The United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) provides the following information to help reduce food loss and minimize the risk of foodborne illness.

To prepare for emergencies, keep thermometers in refrigerators and freezers to help evaluate food safety during power outages. The temperature should never rise above 40° F in the refrigerator or 0° F in the freezer. Store food on shelves where it is less likely to be affected by contaminated flood waters. Have generators ready to power refrigerators and freezers during power outages.

In the freezer, group foods together. This will help them stay cold longer if the power goes out. Freeze foods like milk, meat, and poultry to allow them to stay at a safe temperature longer. Keep coolers handy to store refrigerator food when the power will be out for more than four hours. Store ice and gel packs in the freezer for use in refrigerators and coolers.

If a power outage occurs, make sure freezer and refrigerator doors stay closed as much as possible. A freezer will keep its temperature for two days when full and one day when half-full. A refrigerator with the door closed can keep food cold for about four hours. Make sure to plan ahead and know where to purchase block ice to keep refrigerators cold when a generator is not available and the power is out for more than four hours. Help keep workers safe if they have to handle block ice by providing the proper safety glasses, gloves, and footwear

After an emergency, check food temperatures to ensure safety. Freezer food that is below 40° F or still has ice crystals can be safely refrozen. Never taste items to determine their safety and discard wooden and plastic cutting boards and utensils, perishable food items that have been stored for more than two hours in a refrigerator or freezer above 40° F, and foods stored in non-waterproof containers that may have come into contact with flood water. According to the USDA, a good rule to remember is, “when in doubt, throw it out.”

Use hot soapy water to thoroughly wash ceramic dishes, metal pans, and utensils exposed to flood waters. Then sanitize them by boiling them in clean water or soaking them for fifteen minutes in a solution of one tablespoon of liquid chlorine bleach for each gallon of water.   

Prepare for floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other disasters by teaching workers how to properly keep food safe, and how to use generators during an emergency.

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