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CONSUMER REPORTS: How to keep food safe during natural disasters

by Consumer Reports editors on May 26, 2013 2:40 AM

With six months elapsed since superstorm Sandy socked the mid-Atlantic and predictions pointing to a very active Atlantic hurricane season this year, Consumer Reports has taken stock of the superstorm’s impact and distilled its lessons.

In one of the largest such surveys on a natural disaster, the Consumer Reports National Research Center recently asked subscribers in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York — three of the states hit hardest after Sandy made landfall on Oct. 29 — about their problems and actions during the days following the storm.

Nearly 8,400 people responded to the survey, with three-quarters reporting a loss of power from their utility company for at least one day, with a median of seven days.

A week is far longer than food can be kept safe without refrigeration.

Of all of the survey respondents who applied for disaster relief from FEMA, 23 percent included food replacement costs in their request. To avoid foodborne illnesses in such events, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends throwing out perishables after just four hours without power.


Improved weather forecasts give residents in the path of advancing storms plenty of notice. Use that time to prepare for a power outage. In addition to candles and flashlights, stock up on packaged food that doesn’t require cooking. And to keep the food in your refrigerator and freezer safe for as long as possible, the FSIS recommends making these preparations:

• Put appliance thermometers in the refrigerator and the freezer. That way you’ll know the temperature if the power goes out.

• Keep the freezer set at 0 degrees F or below, and the refrigerator at 37 degrees to 40 degrees F.

• Group food together in the freezer to help it stay cold longer.

• Use any extra space to freeze containers of water for ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator, or coolers.

• Freeze gel packs ahead of time for use in coolers.

• Freeze refrigerated items such as leftovers, milk, and fresh meat and poultry that you may not need immediately — this helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.

• Find out ahead of time where dry ice and block ice can be purchased.

• Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerated food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours.

• Store food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water in case of flooding.

If you do lose power, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain cold temperatures.

If unopened, the refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about four hours, Consumer Reports notes.

A full freezer will hold its temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it’s only half full), as long as the door remains closed. The FSIS offers these additional guidelines:

• Discard refrigerated perishables such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items after four hours without power.

• Food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40 degrees F or below when checked with a food thermometer.

• Buy dry ice if you think the power will be out for a prolonged period. Fifty pounds of dry ice can keep an 18-cubic-foot freezer cold for two days.

• When power is restored, check the temperature of the freezer.

If the appliance thermometer reads 40 degrees F or below, the food is safe to refreeze.

• Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with floodwater.

• Never taste food to determine its safety; when in doubt, throw it out.

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