As the national education advisor for food safety at FDA, I’m responsible for getting the word out about keeping food safe, particularly during disasters. And, of all the natural disasters that we face in the United States, the only one that has its own clearly defined season is the hurricane.
The 2010 Hurricane Season in the Atlantic Ocean begins today, June 1. The experts are predicting a busier-than-usual hurricane season for this year. That makes it even more important to be prepared, particularly when it comes to safe food and water.
The best strategy for you and your family? Have a plan in place and be sure everyone in the family knows it. Make sure that your plan includes these food and water safety precautions:
- Use appliance thermometers in your refrigerator and freezer. In case of a power outage, thermometers will help you determine if the food is safe. Freezer temperature should be 0 F or lower; the refrigerator should be 40° F or lower.
- Freeze containers of water for ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator, or coolers in case the power goes out. You can also use the melting ice as drinking water.
- Purchase or make ice cubes and freeze gel packs in advance for use in coolers.
- Check out local sources where you can buy dry ice and block ice, just in case.
- Store some bottled water where it will be as safe as possible from flooding.
If the Power Goes Out
Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible
- A refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours if you keep it closed.
- A full freezer will keep temperature for about 48 hours (24 hours if half-full)
- If the power is going to be out for an extended period of time, buy dry or block ice to keep the refrigerator as cold as possible. Fifty pounds of dry ice should keep a fully-stocked 18-cubic-feet freezer cold for two days.
Wash fruits and vegetables with water from a safe source.
For infants, try to use prepared, canned baby formula that does not require adding water. For concentrated or powdered formula, prepare with bottled rather than tap water.
When the Power Is Restored
- Check refrigerator and freezer thermometers. If the freezer reads 40° F or below, the food is safe and may be refrozen.
- If you did not use a thermometer in the freezer, check each package. If the food still contains ice crystals, it is safe to refreeze or cook.
- Discard any perishable food that has been kept above 40° F for two hours or more.
Because you can't tell if food has reached a safe internal temperature just by looking at it.
Is it done yet? How do you know when your hamburger is done? Because it's brown in the middle? Looking at the color of the food is not enough—you have to use a food thermometer to be sure.
According to USDA research, 1 out of every 4 hamburgers turns brown in the middle before it has reached a safe internal temperature. The only way to be sure food is safely cooked is to use a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature.
Because it helps you to avoid overcooking.
Using a food thermometer not only keeps you safe from harmful food bacteria but it also helps you to avoid overcooking, keeping it juicy and flavorful.
Because it reduces the risk of foodborne illness.
Just like washing your hands before you prepare a meal, you should get into the habit of checking the internal temperature of food, especially meat, poultry and egg dishes. Using a food thermometer is the only sure way of knowing if your food has reached a high enough temperature to destroy foodborne bacteria.
Tips for using a food thermometer
- Use an instant-read thermometer to check the internal temperature toward the end of the cooking time, but before the food is expected to be done.
- Insert the food thermometer into the thickest part of the food, making sure it doesn't touch bone, fat or gristle.
- Compare your thermometer reading to the Recommended Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures chart to determine if your food has reached a safe temperature.
- Make sure to clean your food thermometer with hot, soapy water before and after each use.
Thermometers come in all shapes and sizes—digital probes for the oven and microwave, dial oven-safe and even disposable temperature indicators. For more information about the different types of thermometers and how to use them, check our fact sheet on Kitchen Thermometers.
Where is your food thermometer? Pushed to the back of the utensil drawer until Thanksgiving? I encourage you to use it whenever you’re cooking meat, poultry, and even egg dishes. It's the only reliable way to make sure you are preparing a safe and delicious meal for your family.
Remember, “It’s Safe to Bite When the Temperature’s Right!
If you have questions about using a food thermometer, feel free to submit them here. But, if you need an answer quickly, one of the following is your best bet:
- Phone: Call USDA's toll-free Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854).
- Online: Use our automated system, Ask Karen, to search our knowledgebase, submit a question, or participate in live chat.
- Email: Send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Questions and Answers
Q. How do you use a food thermometer with a shallow-tray frozen dinner, like a TV dinner?
A. If you are preparing a frozen dinner in a shallow tray, be sure to follow the cooking instructions on the product label. If you are using a microwave oven, observe the "standing time" indicated in the instructions, since cooking continues and is completed during standing time.
There are different types of food thermometers. Some thermometers are designed to better measure the temperature in thicker food products (such as a dial thermometer) and others are designed to better measure the temperature in shallow food products (such as a digital thermometer). Before using a food thermometer, read the thermometer manufacturer's instructions. The instructions can tell you how far the thermometer must be inserted in a food item to give an accurate reading. Most digital thermometers will read the temperature in a small area of the tip so they may work with thin foods or foods in a shallow tray.
Question: What’s 40 feet long, bright yellow, and helps to keep you healthy?
Answer: No, it’s not an overgrown banana. It’s the USDA Food Safety Discovery Zone, also known as our Food Safety Mobile. The Discovery Zone will be traveling to state fairs, public events, supermarkets, and schools around the country this summer and fall. Our goal is to provide visitors of all ages with interactive and fun experiences that teach them how to Fight BAC, the bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses.
We launched the Discovery Zone last week on the National Mall, and the first thing we noticed is how children and their families were attracted to the vehicle and curious about the life-size characters outside, such as Thermy™ and BAC®. When they entered Discovery Zone, they found a brightly colored, fun-house kitchen with several learning stations, including “The Danger Zone,” “Through the Microscope,” and “The Microwave.”
By now, most children seem to have learned the importance of washing hands to prevent illness. Even so, the kids on the Discovery Zone loved the “Germs That Glow in the Dark” station, where they learned about the importance of hand washing. They also got a kick out of “Through the Microscope,” where they could get an up-close view of bacteria like E. coli that cause foodborne illness.
We found out that it’s not just the kids who enjoyed learning about food safety. At the “Food Thermometer” station, a number of avid backyard barbecuers assured us that they “could tell by looking” when a hamburger is done. They were surprised to see for themselves that the color of the meat doesn’t always indicate that it’s safe to eat. They learned that you need a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat, poultry, and seafood – on the grill (and everywhere else, for that matter), to make sure they’re safe to eat.
While the primary mission of the Discovery Zone is education, we can also deploy it in the event of a natural disaster to support local food safety education efforts. When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005, an earlier version of the Food Safety Mobile demonstrated how to sanitize kitchen items and provided critical food safety supplies.
In June, the Food Safety Discovery Zone will be on the road, traveling to Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, Kansas, and Michigan. You can follow our activities on our Discovery Zone Web site and on Twitter. You can also take a virtual tour on YouTube or submit a request for the Discovery Zone to visit your school, market, or other events.