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When in doubt, throw it out

Here are some common safety questions about how to handle food and water before and after a storm.

Q: How long must water be boiled to kill bacteria?

A: The water should be at a rolling boil for 1 to 3 minutes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Q: What if I don't have a heat source to boil water?

A: One gallon of water can be purified with eight drops, or one-eighth teaspoon, of new, unscented household bleach. (A good thing to have in your hurricane kit.) Pharmacies and sporting goods stores sell water purification tablets.

Q: Can I still eat the food in my pantry or refrigerator after floodwater has receded?

A: Do not eat any food in non-waterproof containers that have been touched by floodwater, which carries bacteria. This includes boxes of cereal or pasta. For canned foods, discard paper labels and note the contents with a marker directly on the can. Disinfect cans with a solution of one-fourth cup household bleach and 1 gallon water.

Q: Is my kitchen equipment okay to use after the floodwater has receded?

A: Wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottles and nipples should be discarded. Metal and ceramic utensils and cookware should be washed with soap and hot water, then sanitized in a dishwasher or in a bleach and water solution.

Q: How can I make food last in my refrigerator and freezer after a power outage?

A: Keep the doors closed to trap cold air. Bacteria begins to grow when temperatures rise above 40 degrees. Place appliance thermometers in the refrigerator and freezer to monitor the temperature.

Q: How long will perishable food be safe to eat after a power outage?

A: A full freezer should keep food safe for about two days, a half-full freezer, about a day. Refrigerated foods should be safe if the power is out no more than four to six hours.

If it appears the power will be off more than six hours, transfer perishable foods to a cooler filled with ice or frozen water bottles or gel packs.

Q: Which foods spoil quickly?

A: These items will spoil after eight hours without refrigeration: meat, poultry, fish, eggs and egg substitutes (raw or cooked), milk, cream, yogurt and soft cheese; casseroles, stews or soups; lunch meats and hot dogs; creamy salad dressings; custard, chiffon or cheese pies; refrigerated cookie dough; and open mayonnaise, tartar sauce and horseradish.

Q: I normally keep butter in the refrigerator. Will it spoil without power?

A: The following foods keep at room temperature for a few days: butter or margarine; hard and processed cheese; fresh fruits and vegetables; fruit juices and dried fruit; opened jars of vinegar-based salad dressings; jelly, relish, taco sauce, barbecue sauce, mustard, ketchup, olives; fresh herbs and spices; fruit pies, breads and cakes (except cream cheese-frosted or cream-filled). Discard anything that turns moldy or has an unusual odor.

Q: My power is back. Can I refreeze thawed food?

A: You can refreeze thawed foods that still contain ice crystals. Thawed foods that do not contain ice crystals but have been kept at 40 degrees or below for no more than one to two days may be cooked, then refrozen or canned.

Q: Should I empty my refrigerator before I evacuate?

A: You'll face a refrigerator full of rotten food if the power goes out after you evacuate, and you can't return home for days or weeks. If you're gone only a day or two and the power stays on, your food should be fine. Here's a middle ground: Throw out the leftovers, stuff that probably won't get eaten. From your freezer, throw out items such as meat and poultry, which will go bad quickly if the power goes out.

Compiled by Times food and travel editor Janet K. Keeler with information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and Clemson University Cooperative Extension.

When in doubt, throw it out 05/16/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 11:06am]
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