When lights go out, clock is ticking to prevent foodborne illnesses

Food Safety Month

In the wake of a disaster or an emergency, protecting perishable items from foodborne illnesses is vital for protecting health and wellness, said the Defense Commissary Agency’s director of public health and safety.

“Part of the recovery process in the aftermath of a storm involves making sure you don’t consume food that hasn’t been properly refrigerated or protected from contamination,” said Army Lt. Col. Angela M. Schmillen. “If food smells, looks or feels bad, don’t risk it – it needs to be thrown out.”

During Food Safety Education Month in September, DeCA joins the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Food Safety Inspection Service, the Department of Health and Human Services and other organizations in reinforcing foodborne illness awareness and prevention.

Schmillen said it’s important for commissary customers to practice prevention, especially during emergencies that might lead to power outages. “I cannot stress this enough: When the power goes out, keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible.”

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According to the CDC’s webpage, Keep Food Safe After a Disaster or Emergency, food may come in contact with the elements during a storm or fall victim to a power outage. The following tips are offered to protect food during and after emergencies:

· Keep the fridge closed. If the power goes out, a full freezer can protect food for two days or one day (if it’s half full) if the door stays closed; a refrigerator is good for about four hours

· If in doubt, throw it out. Discard perishable foods in the refrigerator beyond four hours after a power outage – even if the door has remained closed.

· Toss it. If perishable foods have thawed in the freezer.

· Is it still safe? If food in the freezer still has ice crystals on it and still feels cold as if it is refrigerated, you can refreeze or cook it. Go to FoodSafety.gov for a list of foods to either toss or refreeze. Food and food packaging that has come in contact with floodwater and stormwater are also at risk. Go to the CDC’s webpage Keep Food Safe After a Disaster or Emergency for information on what items can be salvaged in these situations and steps to take to ensure their safety.

Although September is a time to draw attention to food safety, the responsibility is a year-round effort for commissaries. A network of Army veterinarians and Army and Air Force food safety and public health specialists help protect against foodborne illnesses by inspecting food sources, deliveries and products on store shelves.

Customers can also learn more about the four steps to food safety: clean, separate, cook and chill, through awareness campaigns from the CDC and USDA. That message is the basis for the following safe handling techniques:


· Wash hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat, poultry or seafood.

· Wash utensils, cutting boards, dishes and countertops with hot soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to prepare the next item.

· Do not wash produce with soap, bleach, sanitizer, alcohol, disinfectant or any other chemical.

· Gently rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under cold, running tap water.

· Scrub uncut firm produce – such as potatoes, cucumbers, melons – with a clean brush, even if you don’t plan to eat the peel.

· Food contact surfaces can be sanitized with a freshly made solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in 1 gallon of water.


· Separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other foods in your grocery shopping cart and in your refrigerator.

· If possible, use one cutting board for fresh produce and a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood.

· Never place cooked food or foods that are eaten raw, like salads, on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry or seafood.


· Cook meats to a safe minimum internal temperature as measured with a food thermometer – 145F for whole cuts of beef or pork, 160F for ground and cubed meats, and 165F for all poultry products. Any leftovers should be reheated to 165F as well.


· Chill food promptly and properly. Refrigerate or freeze perishables, prepared foods and leftovers within two hours (or one hour if temperatures are above 90 F).

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