09/02/11 — Health officials: If in doubt, toss food

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Health officials: If in doubt, toss food

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 2, 2011 1:46 PM

In the aftermath of a hurricane, having to assess damages and wait out lengthy power outages can be stressful.

Adding insult to injury is the possibility that everything in that refrigerator or freezer is no longer safe to consume.

Even if it looks fine and especially if you've always been taught not to waste a bite of food -- ignore such notions and err on the side of caution, health officials say.

Once the power has been off for an extended amount of time, it's all about preventing bacteria and pathogens, said Shane Smith, program coordinator for food and lodging with Wayne County Health Department.

His staff has spent the bulk of this week educating area food establishments about the potential dangers.

"The main thing is the restaurants that had lost power over 30 hours, to make sure that they had thrown their food products away," he said. "By that time, (items) could no longer be used."

The Health Department makes frequent visits throughout the year to restaurants, grocers and school cafeterias to ensure that food is stored properly, served at the right temperature and also cooled correctly, Smith said.

Now, with the complications of a hurricane and loss of electricity, it's about making sure everything is again working -- particularly refrigerators and hot water heaters.

The extent of the damage locally remains unknown, Smith said.

"That's one of the reasons that they had to close school (Monday)," he said, noting that food had to be thrown out and the district had to wait for more to be delivered.

"That's something that they have to do with the power outages," said Ken Derksen, public information officer for Wayne County Public Schools. "The child nutrition department has to assess all the food that's stored at the schools. A lot of times those foods have to be thrown away and replaced.

"With so many schools being without power over that weekend, that was something that we had to look at, something that we're very mindful of as a district."

Residents have likewise had to take steps as the power is still being restored in some areas.

Unless there was a generator to run power, Smith said, precautions must be taken.

A refrigerator will only keep food cold for about four hours if the door is not opened, he explained. A full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours, 24 hours if half full, and then only if the door remains closed.

The importance of checking the temperature cannot be repeated enough, Smith said.

"It's always helpful to have a thermometer, a stem or calibrated thermometer -- you can pick one up at Walmart or Sam's," he said.

According to the FDA, refrigerated or frozen foods need to be at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. If it still contains ice crystals or is at 40 degrees or below, it is considered safe to refreeze or cook.

Do not rely on appearance or odor, though. Even leftovers are not safe to eat unless they can be cooked at 165 degrees, Smith said.

"If in doubt and you don't have a product thermometer, when in doubt, throw it out," he said. "You don't want to cook anything that might be suspect."