Food Safety: Living without Refrigeration
How long will your food last without refrigeration? There are enough bacteria and mold spores in the air to contaminate any food left out. If conditions are right, they will multiply and your salad or casserole will become unsafe. The primary condition required for bacteria is temperature?between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, bacteria will multiply. So, chill it or heat it. Get the temperature below 40 degrees or above 140 degrees. (Some high sugar content foods, like properly formulated pies, will not support bacteria growth even at room temperatures.)
The longer that the food is left out, the more bacteria it will contain. The warmer the environment, the faster the bacteria will multiply. The greater the contamination before refrigeration, the more bacteria will grow as the food is brought to room temperature. So what is the answer? The official answer from the State of Idaho is that foods should not remain between 40 degrees and 140 degrees for more than four hours in total from initial processing to consumption. Bacteria begin to grow in the food as soon as the temperature is suitable. When chilled, the bacteria become dormant only to start growing again when the temperature rises. After four hours of growth, foods may be dangerously contaminated.
You and I don’t know how long the food was above 40 degrees in the processing plant, in the delivery truck, in the grocery store, or maybe on the way home so it pays to minimize the time at room temperature. Some experts say that it is okay to leave food out for two hours below 80 degrees or one hour above 80 degrees. If we follow that advice, we won’t exceed two hours from the time the food comes off the stove until it goes into the refrigerator. That dictates keeping the food hot?above 140 degrees?until serving time and refrigerating the food soon after meals.
Don’t leave hot foods on the counter or stove to cool. Modern refrigerators have enough cooling power to cool hot foods without raising the ambient temperature too much. Transfer hot foods into shallow glass or plastic containers?no more than three inches deep?and place them in the refrigerator with enough room around each container so that the air can circulate.
Proper refrigeration will not only keep foods safer but protect the quality and nutritional value as well.
What to Do When the Power Goes Out
We heard from someone in Florida who had been pounded by a hurricane and whose power had been out for several days. Gratefully, they and their family are all right. But what about that food that was in the refrigerator or in the freezer. Is it salvageable?
Follow the cardinal rule?when in doubt, throw it out. Remember that bacteria will start growing as soon as the food temperature reaches 40 degrees. In a warm climate like Florida, food is only safe for one hour outside of the refrigerator.
Keep your refrigerator and freezer closed. An unopened refrigerator should keep foods cold for up to four hours and a freezer that is half full for 24 hours. Evaluate each item individually when the power comes back on. You should have an insta-read thermometer in your kitchen. (If you don’t have one, pick one up at the department store or purchase one on our site. They are only $10 or so.) Use the thermometer to determine the temperature of your food. If the temperature of the item is above forty degrees and you think that it might have been so for several hours, throw it out.
If you think the power is going to be out for more than four hours, pack meat, milk and dairy products into a cooler with lots of ice. Depending on the climate, they may last a day or two.