If you are one of the half million Connecticut residents whose home lost power during Sunday’s tropical storm and still hasn't returned, the food in your refrigerator and freezer may have been spoiled.
Unfortunately, not only have you lost your food supply, but consuming spoiled food is dangerous to your health.
Food safety experts note that when the refrigerator's temperature climbs above 41 degrees Fahrenheit, the bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses can grow and quickly multiply.
Food in the fridge typically spoils faster than food in the freezer. According to the Food and Safety Inspection Department of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, after power has been lost, food in a refrigerator remains safe for only about four to six hours — if the refrigerator has remained unopened.
As for freezers, which should be set at zero degrees Fahrenheit, a full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours, but only 24 hours if a freezer is half full. If power is going to be out for a long time, get block ice or dry ice to keep your refrigerator or freezer as cold as possible.
Food to discard
Certain foods have a high risk of spoiling during electrical power outages. The following items should be thrown away if the temperature in the fridge has risen above 41 degrees and if the power has been out for longer than four-six hours:
* Meats, fish and poultry, either raw or cooked.
* Cooked vegetables.
* Dairy products such as milk, soft cheeses, whipped butter, cottage cheese and cream cheese.
*Mayonnaise. It spoils very quickly.
* Deli meat and hot dogs.
* Cut fruit.
* Pies, pastries and cookie dough.
* Casseroles, stews and soups.
Health officials stress: do not taste potentially spoiled food! You should throw out any food that looks strange or has an odd odor. At times, spoilage cannot be detected by smell because there may not be a foul odor or taste.
Food to save
After power has been restored, check the internal temperature in your refrigerator to determine if other food is safe to eat. If the temperature is at 40 degrees or below, or if the freezer food contains ice crystals, then the food is safe, says the USDA. (Check the temperatures with an appliance or food thermometer.)
According to the Consumer’s Guide to Food Safety at www.fsis.usda.gov, food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40 °F or below.
There are some foods that will remain safe at room temperature for a few days. These include:
* Butter, margarine, hard cheese.
* Uncut fruit and vegetables.
* Fruit juices.
* Fresh herbs and spices.
* Fresh bread.
Do not eat any food that has come into contact with flood water. According to William Gerrish of the Connecticut Department of Public Health, "This includes packaged food items in plastic, paper, cardboard, cloth and similiar containers that may have been water damaged, as well as beverage containers with screw-caps, snap lids, crimped caps (soda bottles), twist caps, flip tops, and home canned foods, as these tops cannot be disinfected appropriately."
And remember—if in doubt, throw it out!
A full consumer guide to food safety may be found at www.fsis.usda.gov/PDF/severe_storms and hurricanes _ guide. For more information about staying safe and healthy after a disaster or storm, visit www.ct.gov/dph.
Often, foul odors from food spoiled in a refrigerator may be difficult to eliminate. The following may help remove odors, but these steps may have to be repeated.
* Wipe inside of unit with equal parts vinegar and water. Vinegar provides acid which destroys mildew.
*Wash inside of unit with a solution of baking soda and water. Be sure to scrub the gaskets, shelves, sides and door. Allow to air out several days.
*Stuff unit with rolled newspapers. Close the door and leave for several days. Remove paper and clean with vinegar and water.
*Sprinkle fresh coffee grounds or baking soda loosely in the bottom of the unit, or place these items an open container.
*Place a cotton swab soaked with vanilla inside freezer. Close door for 24 hours. Check for odors.
*Use a commercial product available at hardware and houseware stores. Follow the manufacturers' instructions.