Tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents who lost electricity in Tuesday’s punishing nor’easter were dealing with a potentially costly challenge: preserving food before it spoils. They face a double threat, experts say, from food stored in refrigerators and freezers but also from supplies in dry storage — on shelves and in pantries — that come into contact with bacteria-laden floodwater.
Some are turning to makeshift methods. Meteorologist Matt Noyes of NBC10 Boston tweeted a photo, after a previous storm, of the snow-filled cooler he was using to keep perishables cold during a power outage. “As a lifelong New Englander, I’m no stranger to our time-honored tradition of leveraging nature to work in our favor — particularly since it was nature that took away the fridge in the first place,” Noyes told the Globe in an e-mail. “This isn’t an option in the warmth after a hurricane, but seems to do the trick after an old-fashioned New England winter storm and saves some money by not having to replace all the groceries.”
Jeff Hall, spokesman for the American Red Cross of Massachusetts, said Noyes’ idea works in theory but doesn’t guarantee that food will be safe to eat. “Just taking a shovel full of snow out of your yard and throwing it in a bucket of food will definitely keep it below 40 degrees, but you still run the risk of contamination from bacteria that lives outside that could possibly make you sick,” Hall said. “It’s obviously cold, but you don’t know what’s been in and out of the snow. If an animal has walked through it, it’s tracking dirt.”
According to the USDA guidelines, food in the refrigerator during a power outage that rises above 40 degrees for two hours or more should be thrown out. Meat and dairy products like soft cheeses and eggs are the most risky, while less perishable items like hard cheeses and juice can be kept.
In the freezer, if there are still ice crystals on it, it’s generally safe. If packaged items have been touched by floodwaters, just waiting for sealed items to dry off doesn’t guarantee they’re safe for consumption.
Canned goods or products packaged in hard plastic can be salvaged by stripping off any labeling and washing the remaining packaging in a diluted bleach solution of one tablespoon of bleach to one gallon of clean water. After that, the item needs to dry for at least an hour before it’s safe to open and consume. (The diluted bleach solution should also be used to clean any surface that you would eat off of or that comes in contact with food.)
Hall discourages following advice like “taste it and see.”
“You could potentially be putting bacteria that has formed because of the warmer temperature into your body, and it’s going to make you sick,” he said. “Your drains in your street are backing up, there’s run-off from cars, antifreeze. You just don’t know what could be in flood waters.”
The Red Cross also advises erring on the side of caution by throwing out cardboard-packaged items with soft plastic containers inside that have been submerged in floodwater. However, soft metal juice pouches are OK once they have been disinfected and any plastic straws discarded.Margeaux Sippell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MargeauxSippell