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After the flood, tips to keep your food safe to eat

When flood waters get into your kitchen, food safety can be a real concern, both because of power loss and the water itself.

Food — even what's in cans that haven't been sanitized — can be contaminated when your kitchen is flooded by either fresh or saltwater. Remember, the water that comes into the house is untreated and has picked up bacteria and dirt as it raced through the street. Besides food, equipment may also be compromised.

Here are some food safety tips:

• Do not eat any food in non-waterproof containers that have touched floodwater because it carries bacteria. This includes boxes of cereal or pasta. Containers that are not waterproof include those with screw-caps, snap lids, pull tops, and crimped caps. For canned foods, discard paper labels and note the contents with a marker directly on the can. Disinfect cans with a solution of 1 tablespoon unscented household bleach mixed with 1 gallon water. If you do not do this, bacteria can come in contact with the food when you open the containers.

• 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.

• Never taste food to see if it's safe. Contamination doesn't necessarily make food taste bad. Smell and color may indicate spoilage, though not always. If in doubt, toss it out.

How long is cold food safe after the power goes out?

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

• 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 refrigerated, perishable foods to an insulated cooler filled with ice or frozen gel packs.

• 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 will be spoiled after eight hours without refrigeration.

• 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. Remember, if you've lost your power and air-conditioning, "room-temperature'' might be too high for many of these foods.

• 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. Anything else should be discarded.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; U.S. Department of Agriculture; Clemson University Cooperative Extension; Hillsborough Health Department; Times files