Sandy's Sinister Side Effect: Foodborne Illness

Massive power outages result in huge amounts of waste—and increased risk of getting sick from your food.

Refrigerators can't keep cold in for long after a power outage. Toss anything perishable after 4 hours. (Yes, really.) (Photo: Image Source/Getty Images)
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Mandatory evacuations, façades breaking off buildings, record flooding, a crackling power station explosion—it was a harrowing night for millions along the East Coast. And the stress continues today, as more than 7 million Americans are without power after Sandy pummeled the region.

Up there in importance with safe shelter is safe food.

Lack of electricity in homes in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and more means those residents relying on refrigerated food may have a surprisingly small safety window.  

MORE: Frankenstorm Sandy: Has Climate Change Bred a Monster?

According to the USDA’s guide to Food Safety: Severe Storms and Hurricanes, a refrigerator will keep food safely cold for four hours if unopened. That’s it, just four brief hours. A full freezer can maintain its temperature for up to 48 hours if the door remains closed. If your freezer is half empty, cut that time back to a 24-hour window.

And if you’re opening refrigerator doors frequently searching for a snack, then the clock is ticking even faster and you’ll need an appliance or food thermometer to ensure the food remains below 40 °F. For those hit by flooding waters and not snow—any food (not sealed in a waterproof container) that’s come in contact with flood waters is a definite no-go.

While items like jellies, catsup, taco sauce, fruit juices, and even thawed waffles can be saved, even after that four-hour window, eggs, shredded cheeses, lunch meats, yogurts and more, should be discarded. (If you’re unsure, an extensive list is here.)

But never taste food to determine its safety, warns the USDA.

Of course if post-Sandy emerges resembling post-Irene, then we’re guessing plenty of you spent the last few days dipping into chips, Pop-Tarts and soda, instead of healthier emergency pantry staples like canned sardines, dried fruits and nuts or canned beans. (Uh-huh. We saw the photos of depleted grocery store shelves.)

What we don’t expect to see are images of putrid refrigerators discarded after Hurricane Katrina decimated much of New Orlean—an estimated 350,000 of them. Residents then were forced to evacuate, many not realizing they wouldn’t be returning for weeks, even months, turning their refrigerators into hazardous waste, and with them, a lingering image of the powerful storm.

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