UF expert: Protect your family from foodborne illness during hurricane season
by Tom Nordlie
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Protect your family from foodborne illness during hurricane season by following research-based guidelines and common sense, urges a University of Florida food safety expert.
As part of Hurricane Irma recovery, take steps to ensure that perishable food is protected from future storms, says Amy Simonne, a professor with the department of family, youth and community sciences, part of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
A good starting point, she says, is to install a thermometer in the refrigerator, the fridge’s freezer compartment and any stand-alone freezers.
“The thermometer is something many people overlook, and it can help you determine if your food is safe,” says Simonne, who is also a UF/IFAS Extension statewide food safety specialist.
If a hurricane is expected, adjust the refrigerator to 34 degrees Fahrenheit – just above freezing – and adjust freezers to the coldest settings possible, she says.
To protect frozen food, Simonne suggests making ice packs with screw-top plastic beverage bottles. Fill a bottle three-quarters up with tap water and freeze without a cap, to allow space for the ice to expand. Recap when frozen and repeat until there are enough ice packs to fill all empty space around food items in the freezer.
“A freezer that’s packed full will stay cold twice as long as a freezer that’s half empty,” Simonne says. “By using homemade ice packs, you can keep your freezer full but still have flexibility in the amount of frozen food you store.”
If the power goes out for an extended period, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides detailed advice on the safe holding times for many foods in the publication, “A Consumer’s Guide to Food Safety: Severe Storms and Hurricanes,” available here, Simonne says.
The USDA guidelines state that, during a power outage, food stored in a closed refrigerator will remain safe for four hours. Food in a closed, full freezer will keep 48 hours and food in a half-full freezer will keep 24 hours. These times are approximations, Simonne says, and frozen foods are safe to eat or re-freeze if the freezer temperature is no higher than 40 degrees Fahrenheit when the power outage ends.
“Frozen foods that have thawed need to be thrown away, even if they subsequently re-froze,” she says. “Cooking the food doesn’t necessarily make it safe. Some microorganisms, such as Staphylococcus aureus, produce toxins that are not destroyed by heat.”
Similarly, foods that were handled or partially eaten are likely to contain more bacteria and go bad faster than foods in sealed packaging, Simonne says.
The USDA publication includes information about foods that can safely do without refrigeration, such as hard cheeses, breads and some condiments, she says.
Once the power’s back on, homeowners should either remove unsafe items immediately, or clearly mark them as unsafe if they will kept cold until trash pick-up. Do not give discarded food items to pets because they could become ill, she says.
“Use your best judgment and remember the phrase, ‘when in doubt, throw it out,’” Simonne says. “It is frustrating to dump a freezer’s worth of food in the garbage, but the last thing you want is for your family to get food poisoning on top of everything else that’s happening.”
For more information about safe handling of food and water, click here to see a publication from the UF/IFAS Extension online EDIS library.
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.