Severe weather events can mean power outages, floods, and other problems that can affect the safety of food. Knowing what to do before and after a weather event can help you reduce your risk of illness. By following these guidelines, you can also minimize the amount of food that may be lost due to spoilage.
Especially in storm-prone areas, power outages can be a common problem. Power outages can occur at any time of the year and it may take from a few hours to several days for electricity to be restored to residential areas. Without electricity or a cold source, food stored in refrigerators and freezers can become unsafe. Bacteria in food grow rapidly at temperatures between 40 and 140 °F, and if these foods are consumed, people can become very sick.
Steps to follow to prepare for a possible weather emergency
- Keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer. An appliance thermometer indicates the temperature in the refrigerator and freezer. In the case of a power outage, it can help determine the safety of the food.
- Make sure the freezer is at 0 °F or below and the refrigerator is at 40 °F or below.
- Freeze containers of water ahead of time for ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator, or coolers after the power is out. Freeze gel packs 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.
- Plan ahead and know 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 4 hours.
- Group food together in the freezer - this helps the food stay cold longer.
- Store food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water in case of flooding.
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Steps to follow after the weather emergency
- Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature.
- The refrigerator will keep food safe for about 4 hours if it is unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) and the door remains closed.
- Discard refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers, and deli items after 4 hours without power.
- Food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40 °F or below when checked with a food thermometer.
- Never taste a food to determine its safety!
- Obtain dry or block ice to keep your refrigerator and freezer as cold as possible if the power is going to be out for a prolonged period of time. Fifty pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic-foot full freezer for 2 days.
- If the power has been out for several days, check the temperature of the freezer with an appliance thermometer. If the appliance thermometer reads 40 °F or below, the food is safe to refreeze.
- If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, check each package of food to determine its safety. If the food still contains ice crystals, the food is safe.
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During Snow and Ice Storms
- During a snowstorm, do not place perishable food out in the snow. Outside temperatures can vary and food can be exposed to unsanitary conditions and animals. Instead, make ice. Fill buckets, empty milk containers, or cans with water and leave them outside to freeze. Use this ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator, or coolers.
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If Flooding Occurs
- Drink only bottled water that has not come in contact with flood water. Discard any bottled water that may have come in contact with flood water.
- Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance it may have come in contact with flood water. Food containers that are not waterproof include those with screw-caps, snap lids, pull tops, and crimped caps.
- Discard wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples, and pacifiers that may have come in contact with flood water.
- Undamaged, commercially prepared foods in all-metal cans and retort pouches (for example, flexible, shelf-stable juice or seafood pouches) can be saved. Follow the "Steps to Salvage All-Metal Cans and Retort Pouches" in the publication Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency at: www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/keeping_food_ Safe_during_an_emergency/index.asp
- Thoroughly wash all metal pans, ceramic dishes, and utensils that came in contact with flood water with hot soapy water. Sanitize by boiling them in clean water or by immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water.
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To Remove Odors from Refrigerators and Freezers
If food has spoiled in a refrigerator or freezer and odors from the food remain, they may be difficult to remove. The following procedures may help but may have to be repeated several times.
- Dispose of any spoiled or questionable food.
- Remove shelves, crispers, and ice trays. Wash them thoroughly with hot water and detergent. Then rinse with a sanitizing solution (1 tablespoon unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water).
- Wash the interior of the refrigerator and freezer, including the door and gasket, with hot water and baking soda. Rinse with sanitizing solution as above.
- Leave the door open for about 15 minutes to allow free air circulation. For more information about removing odors, see www.fsis.usda.gov/PDF/Removing_Odors_from_ Refrigerators_and_Freezers.pdf
When in Doubt, Throw it Out!
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Meat Inspection Act of 1906, U.S. legislation, signed by Pres. Theodore Roosevelt on June 30, 1906, that prohibited the sale of adulterated or misbranded livestock and derived products as food and ensured that livestock were slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions. The law reformed the meatpacking industry, mandating that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspect all cattle, swine, sheep, goats, and horses both before and after they were slaughtered and processed for human consumption. The law also applied to imported products, which were treated under similarly rigorous foreign inspection standards. The 1906 legislation amended prior Meat Inspection Acts of 1890 and 1891 and other laws that had provided for USDA inspection of slaughtered animals and meat products but had proven ineffective in regulating many unsafe and unsanitary practices by the meatpacking industry. The law was amended by the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967.
Origins of reform
Beginning in the 1880s, American chemist Harvey W. Wiley, chief of the Bureau of Chemistry of the USDA, issued reports noting the health hazards posed by the adulteration of processed foods such as canned meat and by chemicals used as preservatives and colouring agents. The Association of Official Agricultural Chemists (an organization Wiley founded in 1884) began lobbying for federal legislation governing the packing and purity of food products.
The first widespread public attention to the unsafe practices of the meatpacking industry came in 1898, when the press reported that Armour & Co., had supplied tons of rotten canned beef to the U.S. Army in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. The meat had been packed in tins along with a visible layer of boric acid, which was thought to act as a preservative and was used to mask the stench of the rotten meat. Troops who consumed the meat fell ill, becoming unfit for combat, and some died. Roosevelt, who served in Cuba as a colonel, testified in 1899 that he would have eaten his old hat as soon as eat what he called “embalmed beef.”
The canned-meat scandal prompted Thomas F. Dolan, a former superintendent for Armour & Co., to sign an affidavit noting the ineffectiveness of government inspectors and stating that the company’s common practice was to pack and sell “carrion.” The New York Journal published Dolan’s statement on March 4, 1899. The Senate then formed the Pure-Food Investigating Committee, which held hearings in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York City from 1899 to 1900. The committee declared such common meat preservatives as borax, salicylic acid, and formaldehyde to be “unwholesome.” The press also reported from the committee’s hearings that some of the nation’s food supply was adulterated—made impure by the addition of foreign or inferior substances. These concerns were in addition to the health problems posed by the packaging of substandard or condemned meat products.
At the centre of public outrage was the “Beef Trust”—a collaborative group made up of the five largest meatpacking companies—and its base of packinghouses in Chicago’s Packingtown area. Journalists published pieces in radical and muckraking magazines detailing the monopolistic and exploitive practices of Beef Trust businesses as well as the unsanitary conditions of the packinghouses and their tactics to evade even the smallest levels of government inspection. Of those journalists, American writer Charles Edward Russell is perhaps best known, for his series of articles about the Beef Trust that were published as The Greatest Trust in the World (1905).
Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle
The broadest public attention to the Chicago packinghouses came with the work of Upton Sinclair. In 1904 Sinclair covered a labour strike at Chicago’s Union Stockyards for the socialist magazine Appeal to Reason and proposed that he spend a year in Chicago to write an exposé of the Beef Trust’s exploitation of workers. The result was his best-known novel, The Jungle (1906), which vividly described not only the working conditions of packinghouses but also the horrific meatpacking practices that produced the food itself. The novel first appeared serially in Appeal to Reason on February 25, 1905, and it was published as a book by Doubleday, Page & Company a year later, after a report resulting from an independent investigation by labour commissioner Charles P. Neill and social worker James Bronson Reynolds confirmed Sinclair’s depiction of the packinghouses.
Roosevelt, an avowed “trustbuster,” was sent an advance copy of The Jungle. He sent Neill and Reynolds to investigate the Beef Trust’s meatpacking practices. The novel was an instant international best seller and prompted massive public outrage at the contamination and sanitation issues raised in the work, even though Sinclair’s primary intent in writing the story was to promote socialism. Also contributing significantly to the broad public response was the larger movement made by muckraking journalists and Progressive activists who called for reform in government regulation of industry. There also was growing support within the industry for regulation in response to heightened public awareness.
By early 1906 both the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act had long been stalled in Congress, but, when the Neill-Reynolds report had fully confirmed Sinclair’s charges, Roosevelt used the threat of disclosing its contents to speed along the passage of both acts, which became law on the same day.