When in doubt, throw it out is a good rule of thumb for any situation where food safety is in question. That’s one of the tips the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA’s FSIS) has included on its recommendations to residents of flood-ravaged southeastern Texas.
Historic levels of rain have swamped Houston and surrounding areas and power has been knocked out in some neighborhoods. While Harris County tries to assess the extent of flood damage, USDA officials are hoping to minimize illnesses that are sometimes associated with weather emergencies. “Refrigerated and frozen foods may reach unsafe storage temperatures when homes lose electricity, and food is also unsafe to eat if it has come into contact with flood waters,” USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen said in a statement.
Consumers can use their cell phones to access agency’s virtual food safety representative, “Ask Karen,” on the internet which has a database of over 1,300 food safety questions and answers. Or, they can call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.
In the event of a weather emergency, the USDA FSIS advises consumers to keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. With the door closed, a refrigerator can keep food cold for about four hours. In a full freezer, food will stay good for 48 hours. If it’s half full, the food will keep for 24 hours. A 50-lb block of dry ice will keep food in a fully-stocked 18-cubic-feet freezer cold for two days. Never taste food to determine if it is safe to eat. Throw out all perishable items such as meat, eggs, poultry, fish or dairy products that were in a refrigerator without power for more than four hours.
Any food that comes into contact with floodwaters and is not in a waterproof container must be thrown out, FSIS advises. Some containers that may seem waterproof, actually aren’t including those that have screw-caps, snap lids, pull tops, and crimped caps. All plastic and wooden utensils or containers including baby bottles, nipples and pacifiers should also be thrown out.
Metal or ceramic pans, dishes and utensils can be kept and cleaned by washing them with hot soapy water and then sanitizing them with boiling water or submerging them in a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water. Food in metal cans and retort pouches can also be saved by following the steps outlined in Steps to Salvage All-Metal Cans and Retort Pouches.