It’s Summer again, with mosquitoes, rain, good weather and Hurricane Season — so what do we do with our food supply when the lights go out?

Well if you are in the hospital food business you have a back up generator plant up and running in short order and all systems are good to go. But what about other large food purveyors? Well unfortunately during the last several storms, even very large grocery stores in South Florida didn’t have back up power. And in New Orleans, hospitals, stores, schools, and neighborhoods were flooded so if there were working back up generators prior to the flood, they didn’t work following it. This lack of preparation may be changing, but it didn’t take long for everyone to realize that nothing was going to be back to normal for a long time. That meant that without refrigeration, food was going to spoil and we were going to be throwing a lot of product out.

There are several issues with un-refrigerated food. It becomes garbage in about four hours once the above 41 degrees (F) or 5 degrees (C) has been breached. A good rule of thumb is four hours, “throw it out”, based on time criteria. This applies to all refrigerated food products and/or other food items that may be in Dry Storage like oats, rice and grains which were in air conditioning and were held at 50% to 60% humidity with 50 to 70 degrees (F) temperature and the product was fine, but now they are hot, moist and spoiling. Bread too will last only a couple of days once opened in warm temperatures and high humidity similar to rice, oats and other grains. These grains must be kept dry and cool and without power that is difficult to do.

In walk-in freezers, food is normally kept at 0 degrees (F) or colder. Without backup generation, the food product warms up in the freezer. It is necessary to keep the freezer door closed as long as possible; but again, once the temperature range goes over 41 degrees (F) the food only has about four hours before it also must be discarded.

No one wants to throw out what we once knew as perfectly good food, but it must be done to prevent an unfortunate illness — all brought on by a lack of power, no refrigeration and warm temperatures. After hurricane Wilma two years ago, a restaurant employee in Fort Lauderdale took meat out of the restaurant’s walk-in freezer, after the power had been out for several days and put it in the garbage. Although the vacuum packed meat was still cool, it was not cold enough to prevent bacterial growth and the food certainly was not below 41 degrees so the decision to throw out the meat was the correct one.

However, the problem occurred when he took the meat out of the garbage, took it home and ate it. Even though he cooked it to the correct temperature where the bacteria may have been killed by the cooking, there are several types of bacteria which release toxins creating an intoxication food borne bacteria. The toxins released by the bacteria made him violently ill with Clostridium Botulinum. He was lucky because Clostridium Botulinum can be deadly. When he got out of the hospital about a week later, although the lights were back on his refrigerator contained a pile of rotten meat!

Moral of the story, “Be Prepared”.