How to tell if the food in your refrigerator is safe to eat after a power outage

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Forty-one degrees Fahrenheit is magic number, according to Harford County Health Department food sanitarian Larry Outten. If any of the food you had in your refrigerator or freezer rose above that number during the Hurricane Irene related power outages we’ve had this week, Outten recommends you get rid of it to avoid making yourself or your family sick.

Outten said bacteria can start to grow on food kept at temperatures above 41 degrees. He said the sniff test won’t work. You can’t always smell bacteria on food.

The best way to tell if your food is the right temperature, he said, is to use a metal stem thermometer. The best type to use is marked from zero to 220 degrees fahrenheit in 2-degree increments.

However, if your power went off came on and went off again, (like mine did) it makes it nearly impossible to tell what temperature the food maintained during that time.

He said raw meats aren’t the only foods to worry about. Foods like cooked pasta, rice and potatoes can provide a breeding ground for bacteria.

Outten said the quality of frozen foods deteriorates if they are refrozen. Even if the temperature of frozen foods remains in a safe zone, refreezing them can cause ice crystals to form and make them less palatable.

Grocery stores are dealing with the same food safety issues and if you’ve been out shopping, you’ve likely seen store staffs discarding piles of food.

“Grocery store peope have training,” Outten said. “They know what they’re supposed to do.”

However, he added that county health department staff isn’t planning to increase its food store inspections as a result of the storm.

“Supermarkets get a comprehensive inspection where we inspect the whole facility and a reinspection to check compliance,” Outten said of the annual inspection the county gives county stores. “They get two more monitoring inspections to check food temperatures.”
Until power is restored countywide and life gets back to normal, Outten recommends buying fresh or canned foods and buying only what you’re going to eat immediately.
And, of course, “When in doubt, throw it out.”