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Friday, November 2, 2012

Food Safety After A Blackout

In the aftermath of the devastating storm that Sandy was, its hard to have any words of consolation. A friend of mine, living on the New York coast, in mandatory evacuation area A, left her house for the duration of the storm and came back to find out that all her worldly possessions were destroyed. I wish I had tips and techniques for her and people in similar situations how to frugally rebuild your life from scratch, but unfortunately, I do not. All the tips I could possibly think of for furnishing a home frugally from scratch probably won't work when there are so, so, so many people who need to do the same and are competing for the same things.
The one thing that I can do is this-
Even if people didn't lose everything in the storm, even if their home remained unscathed, the one thing millions of Americans are/were suffering from is blackouts. Blackouts are more than just inconvenient- they can be life threatening (as in the case of NYU hospital who's backup generators failed, necessitating transfering lots of NICU and PICU babies to other hospitals during the storm). But even if you're not dependent on electricity for your health and well being, your food supply usually is, especially your perishables in the refrigerator.
Now, what happens if you have a fully stocked refrigerator and freezer, and your electricity goes out for some time? Do you lose everything? Do you have to throw it out? What is actually safe to eat, and what is not?
 I know that the FDA and other similar organizations put out guidelines about what food is safe to eat and what is not, but I'll be honest, I think they're pretty alarmist. The FDA isn't the one incurring the huge loss that would be entailed in you throwing out massive amounts of food, especially if you had a large stockpile in your freezer, so its easy for them to say to toss it all- no skin off their back, only yours!
So, this post is not backed by the FDA nor by any scientific evidence or studies. No "links with information to back it up."  This is just me, myself, and I telling you what I would do in your situation. You, of course, have to decide what you feel comfortable doing; don't just take my word for it.


So first of all, before I get into anything, I just wanted to point out that until not so long ago, no one in the world had even heard of a refrigerator or freezer, let alone had one, and much of the world today survives without a refrigerator. I mean, I was even ready to go on a "no fridge experiment" because I knew it was possible.
Guess what? People didn't throw out their foods every few days, because it was "obviously" spoiled and fresh because there was no freezer. No.
You can live just fine without a working fridge or freezer. And a sudden lack of a fridge or freezer doesn't all of a sudden make your food become terrible and unusable. Yes, for some of the stuff, they used alternative preservation methods to keep the food fresh. And the other food? It stayed fresh, even with no refrigeration!

First off, a little about what makes food spoil.
There are microbes everywhere. Teeny tiny little things, invisible to the naked eye. Bacteria, fungi (of which mold is a sub-type), amoebas, etc. Some are good for you, some are neutral, and some cause spoilage. Most things have most types of microbes at all times. What makes something spoil isn't the presence of bad bacteria- they are there all the time. The problem is the amount- if the bad bacteria grow enough so that they are dominant in the food, so that the food spoils and you get sick if you eat it.
Bacteria and fungi need certain conditions in which to proliferate. Generally moisture and warmth, and not too much salt or sugar or acid, among other things.

Modern day homes store food in the refrigerator and freezer, because in cold temperatures, bad microbes proliferate much, much slower, which means the food takes much longer to get enough bacteria to spoil. Freezers nearly completely stop the growth of microbes, which is why food can last in the freezer nearly indefinitely (despite what the official safety books say) without spoiling.

What happens when there is a blackout?

Well, refrigerators and freezers stop being supplied with electricity, so the motor, which creates and spreads cool air in the machine, stops running. The insulation in the refrigerator and freezer will help retain the cold somewhat, so that the cold dissipates slowly. A freezer packed to the limits will stay frozen for at least a day, possibly more, depending on the outside temperatures, and will stay cold for even longer. Of course, every time you open and close the door to the fridge/freezer, it warms up much quicker than if it was kept cold.

Ok, so thus far I haven't stated anything that people don't already know.

But.

What about spoilage?

Well, when the refrigerator food gets brought to room temperature, the spoiling happens much faster because the bacteria have the right environment that they need to grow. When something from the freezer defrosts, the bacteria start growing, and when they grow enough, spoilage will happen.

How do you know when something is spoiled?

By smelling it, usually. If it smells fine, its fine to eat. If it doesn't smell ok...

...that doesn't mean you have to throw it out. You still maybe can eat it, depending on what it is. Again, this isn't official safety standards, but I will tell you that I've had meat that I left to defrost overnight in the summer, and didn't get right to it first thing in the morning. By the time I took a look at it, it was starting to smell a little bit. Since I didn't want to throw it all out, I just washed and washed and washed the meat until it no longer smelled, and then cooked it. We ate it. Everyone was fine. No one got a stomach ache. I'm not telling you what to do with your meat if it is starting to smell, just sharing what I did, and the fact that I had fine results.

And if it smells ok, it doesn't matter if it was defrosted more than the "official amount of days" that it is "allowed to be out". It doesn't matter if it was defrosted and then refrozen.

Because if it doesn't smell, it means most likely not enough bacteria and mold have grown to be able to make you sick.

I've read that you can't defrost meat and then safely freeze it again.

I don't buy it.

Why on earth would that be unsafe?

Yes, if something is frozen, the amount of bacteria growth is very small, if at all, and when defrosted, it starts growing again. But when you stick it back in the freezer, once again the conditions are unfavorable to microbe growth, so the bacterial growth is once again slowed to a near stop. I have zero qualms whatsoever about defrosting things then refreezing them then defrosting then refreezing- I do it all the time, and not once has someone gotten sick.

And can I tell you a little secret? Bacteria and mold and other dangerous microbes are destroyed via heating! So even if the food IS contaminated by excess unhealthy microbe growth, once you cook the food, you've made it safe again! So if you're even slightly suspicious as to the safety of certain food, just cook it, and cook it to high temperatures or for a long time (or both) if you're really worried.

So, if you got your electricity back and your refrigerator and freezer was just out of service for a few days, don't despair- just check the food. If it smells, either chuck it if you really are worried, or just wash it off well and cook it. And if its not, just eat the food, and/or refreeze it; forget about what the official guidelines say.

Now, if you're stuck with no electricity for even longer periods of time, so that you are likely to have your food really spoil, and not just "pass the limits that the FDA sets on what food is safe to eat", its good to note that there are two other options you can do with your food to stop them from spoiling- make their conditions unfavorable to microbe growth in other ways- via salting, drying, or canning.
You can build a solar food dehydrator which you can use to dehydrate your fruits and veggies and also meat, chicken, and fish to make jerkies. If you don't have the ability to make such a thing and your oven works via gas, you can also dehydrate in your oven on low.
You can pickle your food, fermenting veggies, but also you can cure meat and fish with salt- a process called corning.
And if you have a pressure canner, can the meat before it spoils.

So, if I were in the situation of lots of y'all with no electricity and a good chance of losing everything in my freezer, what would I do?
I'd first see what's with the meat, because that would be the biggest financial loss if I had to throw it out.
If it was still frozen, I'd leave it alone. If it was still cold, I'd leave it alone if I thought the electricity would come back soon.
If I was worried about it coming to room temperature, or if I just had too much meat to be able to eat when it came to room temperature, I'd divide the meat, make some brined in salt, some dehydrated into jerky, and some canned (once I get a pressure canner).
The other food in the fridge and freezer- I'd take the quickest spoiling food first, and dehydrate it or pickle it or eat it. And then after that is used up, I'd do that with the slower spoiling things, etc...

No, what I wrote is not PC. But no, if I had a blackout that made my fridge and freezer stop working, I certainly wouldn't be tossing everything in the trash. There are alternatives, even if the FDA might disagree.

What's the longest blackout you had? What did you do with the food from your fridge and freezer? Did you ever toss a lot because of something like this? What do you think about the official guidelines? Too strict, or smart?

Linking up to Monday ManiaHomestead Blog Hop

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