Food, glorious food. Food related illnesses, often mistakenly called "stomach flu," strike approximately 1 in 20 people every year. Summertime in Minnesota means camping, picnics and barbecues as well as power outages due to storms. Hot summer weather also means that illness-causing bacteria multiply rapidly in food that is either left out or stored improperly. The USDA recommends keeping hot foods hot (above 150 degrees Fahrenheit) and cold foods cold (below 40 degrees Fahrenheit). The in-between temperatures are called the "danger zone" because bacteria multiply rapidly within this range, often doubling their numbers every 20 to 30 minutes.
Food poisoning can be caused by different organisms. The most common are salmonella, E. coli, listeria and shigella. Symptoms can begin from 1 hour to 5 days after eating contaminated food. For some people, especially those with weakened immune systems or the elderly, food poisoning can be life threatening. Common sense, good hygiene and preparedness can help keep bacteria from spoiling mealtimes. The Minnesota Safety Council offers these recommendations for keeping food safe.
Among the biggest culprits for food poisoning are potato or egg salad left unrefrigerated for too long or chicken that has not been sufficiently cooked. A cook who does not practice good personal hygiene also spreads the illness-causing bacteria.
Always wash hands with soap and water before touching and preparing food.
Make sure your food preparation area is clean.
Wash can opener before and after use.
Wash knives and cutting boards in hot, soapy water after preparing food, especially after preparing poultry, which has a high probability of harboring salmonella bacteria. Consider keeping separate cutting boards: one for meat and one for other foods. Use cutting boards made of plastic, acrylic or another surface that can be easily washed. Disinfect cutting boards with a solution of 1 tsp of unscented bleach to 1 quart of water.
Do not leave food at room temperature for longer than 2 hours. Place it in refrigerator or ice chest promptly.
Tornadoes, floods and thunderstorms can create problems with food and water safety. Power outages are the most common problem facing families during a natural disaster. Food kept in a refrigerator is generally safe as long as the power is not out for more than a few hours. Keep the door closed to keep the cold air inside.
A free-standing freezer will keep food frozen for 1-2 days, depending on how full it is. To keep temperatures below freezing, dry ice can be added; allow 2-3 pounds of ice per cubic foot of freezer space. Keep safety in mind when handling dry ice.
Always wear gloves or use tongs when handling; avoid breathing fumes.
Wrap it in brown paper for longer storage.
Place heavy cardboard directly on packages of frozen food and place dry ice on top of cardboard.
Cover freezer with blankets or quilts, adding crumpled newspaper for added insulation. Make sure air vent openings are clear to allow for gas from dry ice to escape.
If food begins to thaw, it can be refrozen only if ice crystals remain.
Fruits may be refrozen if they smell and taste good; however, refreezing will change the quality of the fruit.
Vegetables should not be refrozen if thawed completely; bacteria multiplies rapidly in the product.
If meat has thawed, it can be cooked and refrozen. Meat and poultry should be discarded if color and odor are poor or questionable.
Fish and shellfish are highly perishable and should not be refrozen if they have thawed completely.
Frozen dinners and ice cream should not be refrozen.
Some foods that require refrigeration can be safely kept at room temperature for a few days. These include:
Butter and margarine
Fresh fruit and vegetables
Hard and processed cheeses
Fresh herbs and spices
Discard any of the following that have been kept over 2 hours above 40 degrees F:
Raw or cooked meat, poultry or seafood
Dairy or egg based products
Cooked pasta and pasta salads
Casseroles, soups or stews
Uncooked dough products
Mayonnaise and tartar sauce
Discard any foods that have turned moldy or have an unusual odor or look. Food that has begun to spoil does not necessarily smell or taste bad. When in doubt, throw it out.
If your home has been involved in a tornado or flood, food products and packages may contain small slivers of glass. Flood waters may contain silt, raw sewage, oil or chemical wastes. Most food products will need to be discarded due to contamination. Throw out all foods packed in foil, cellophane, paper, cloth or cardboard. Even if the contents seem dry, they may not be safe.
Meat, fish, poultry, fresh fruits and vegetables, and food in crown-capped bottles, glass jars and bottles, and plastic jars and bottles should be thrown. Contaminants can get under the lids.
Food in sealed, airtight metal cans are safe for use only after the cans have been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Remove paper labels and identify contents using a permanent marker. Do not use cans that are bulging or damaged — throw them away.
Water may become compromised after a natural disaster. If your source of water is a well or cistern system, consider the water contaminated. Drinking water may be purified by boiling it at a rolling boil for 3 minutes. Another method for purification is to use 1/2 tsp of liquid, unscented laundry bleach to 2 1/2 gallons of water. The water must sit for 30 minutes before drinking. Or you can add 2 drops of tincture of iodine to one quart of water. This must also sit for 30 minutes before use. Water purification tablets are also available.
Liquids from canned vegetables and fruit can serve as water substitutes for recipes in a pinch.
If you cook with either gas or electricity, both utilities may go out during an emergency. If you smell gas, do not try to cook. Open all windows and doors, turn off the main gas valve, and leave the house immediately. Call the gas utility to report the leak. Alternative sources for cooking can include:
Fireplaces. Many foods can be skewered, grilled, or wrapped in foil and cooked in the fireplace.
Electric utensils: If the gas is off but you still have electricity, electric skillets, hot plates, or coffee makers can be used to heat food.
Candle warmers: Devices using candle warmers, such as fondue pots, may be used if no other heat sources are available.
Camp stoves and charcoal burners: These items may be used OUTSIDE the home. Never use fuel-burning camp stoves or charcoal burners indoors, even inside a fireplace. Carbon monoxide and deadly fumes are produced by these devices.
Whether at play or coping with the aftermath of a storm, keeping your food safe is essential.
University of FL Cooperative Extension Service
Christiana Care Health System
University of Minnesota Extension Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)