How to prevent foodborne illness during a power outage

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Thousands of Southern New Englanders lost power during to a winter storm Wednesday and due to the extent of the damage, it could be a while before electricity is fully restored.

Food can start to become unsafe after just four hours without power, according to the Rhode Island Department of Health. Because of this, the agency is urging people who have lost power to take the following precautions:

  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature. The refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours if it is unopened. A full freezer will keep the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) if the door remains closed.
  • Group packages of cold food together to reduce heat gain.
  • Cover open refrigerated and frozen food cases, especially vertical displays.
  • To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, use generators, grills, and similar items outdoors only. Generators should be used at least 20 feet away from your home.

When power is restored:

  • Throw out perishable food (such as meat, fish, eggs, milk, and leftovers) in your refrigerator when the power has been off for four hours or more. Perishable foods that are not kept adequately refrigerated or frozen may cause illness if consumed, even when they are thoroughly cooked. When in doubt, throw it out!
  • If an appliance thermometer was kept in the freezer, check the temperature when the power comes back on. If the freezer thermometer reads 40° F or below, the food is safe and may be refrozen.
  • If you don’t know the temperature in the freezer, check each package of food to determine its safety. You can’t rely on appearance or odor. If the food still contains ice crystals or is 40° F or below, it is safe to refreeze or cook.

According to the health department, consuming food contaminated with bacteria typically causes sickness within one to three days, but illness can also occur without 20 minutes or up to six weeks later.

The symptoms of foodborne illness can include vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, along with flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache and body ache. If you suspect you or a family member has contracted a foodborne illness, contact your healthcare provider immediately.

While most people recover from a foodborne illness within a short period of time, health officials say some people can develop chronic, severe or even life-threatening health problems.

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