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Food safety a growing concern as Irma power outages persist

As millions of Florida residents remain without power in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, experts are warning them to take precautions against food poisoning.

Health officials in Broward County issued an advisory Thursday about the risk of food-borne illness.

"Due to the number of households still without electrical power, the Florida Department of Health in Broward County (DOH-Broward) reminds everyone that it is important to take careful precautions to ensure food safety," the statement reads.

When the power goes out for an extended period of time and refrigerators and ovens are inoperable, the risk of food poisoning is heightened. People should throw away any perishable food that has been at room temperature for two hours or more or any food that has an unusual odor, color, or texture.

Additionally, people should discard any food that has come in contact with floodwater, even those that are wrapped or packaged in plastic. 

"There could be microbreaks in the plastic," Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told CBS News. "There's no way to know if it's been compromised."

Experts say to follow the mantra "when in doubt, throw it out."

DOH-Broward offers the following guidelines to encourage safe food handling and reduce the risk of food-borne illness:

  • Always keep a thermometer in your refrigerator. The temperature should read 41 degrees Fahrenheit (F) or below.
  • Thawed food can usually be eaten if it is still "refrigerator cold."
  • Hands should be washed before preparing or eating food, after using the bathroom or changing a diaper, after handling uncooked food, after playing with a pet, after handling garbage, after tending to someone who is sick or injured, after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, after participating in flood cleanup activities, and after handling articles contaminated with floodwater or sewage.
  • Avoid cross-contamination, which is the transfer of harmful bacteria from one food to another. Never place any type of food on a plate, cutting board or utensil that previously held raw meat, poultry or seafood.
  • When grilling foods, preheat the coals on your grill for 20-30 minutes or until the coals are lightly coated with ash. Grills should never be placed in doors.
  • Use a meat thermometer to ensure that food reaches a safe internal temperature.
    • Hamburgers and ground poultry should be cooked to 160 F.
    • Poultry parts: 170 F.
    • Roasts, steaks and other large cuts of beef: 145 F (rare) and 160 F (medium).
  • Fish should be cooked until the meat is opaque and flakes easily.
  • Use sanitized food and water bowls for your pets and be sure that they do not drink from flood-contaminated surfaces.
  • Never taste food to determine its safety.
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