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Load shedding & food safety

South Africa is experiencing regular load shedding, a situation that may well be a reality for some time. Its duration and frequency will potentially affect the safety of food in a refrigerator.  SA’s food safety and microbiology doyenne, Dr Lucia Anelich, offers this advice….

Refrigerated food should be safe as long as the power is out for no more than 4 hours, the refrigerator door is kept shut AND the fridge was running at 4°C at the time of load shedding. Perishable foods are the most susceptible to spoilage and food safety concerns. 

Examples are:

  • Fresh meat
  • Fresh poultry
  • Fresh fish
  • Milk
  • Soft cheeses
  • Possibly even leftovers, depending on how long they were in the fridge prior to load shedding

Fridges should run at no higher than 4°C, but we know that most consumer fridges run at higher temperatures in South Africa.  Therefore, the 4 hour time period mentioned above, may be even shorter in such cases.  It is then best to discard foods in the above list if the outage is longer than 2 hours AND where the fridge temperature is higher than 4°C. 

The only way to know whether desirable fridge temperatures have been exceeded is to keep a thermometer in the refrigerator.  

Different bacteria start growing at different minimum temperatures, but for every one degree Celsius increase above that minimum growth temperature, bacteria in food grow (double themselves) faster. 

It is therefore essential to keep the door closed to ensure that the temperature stays as low as possible during the power outage.

Frozen foods will remain frozen for about 48 hours, again if the freezer door is kept closed. If any perishable foods start to thaw for whatever reason, they CANNOT be re-frozen and should be cooked as soon as possible. 

Consumers should never taste these foods to determine whether they are safe to possibly keep them. Considering the cost of food, one is loathe to throw it away, however you cannot taste or smell when a food is unsafe.

When a food smells “off” it usually means spoilage and the food should not be consumed, but unsafe food may still smell and taste perfectly fine

If one knows the load shedding schedule, one can prepare for it as follows: 

1.   Make sure the refrigerator is running at 4 °C or as close as possible. 

2.   Freeze refrigerated items that can be frozen such as milk, leftovers, fresh meat and poultry, fish etc that you may not need immediately.

3.   If no freezer is available, buy smaller quantities of fresh food, cook and consume them quickly rather than buying in bulk and refrigerating those items for long periods of time.

4.   Consider buying long-life products, such as sterile or UHT beverages and canned goods, all of which have a long shelf-life outside the refrigerator, while unopened.  Once open however, they too must be refrigerated.

5.   Frozen ice packs can also be packed around perishable foods in the refrigerator to keep those foods cold for as long as possible, during load shedding.

For food that is to be eaten cooked, it is always advisable to cook it thoroughly, even when there is no load shedding.

Source: Anelich Consulting

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