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Nutrition Nerd: Food Safety 101

Posted Nov 08 2012 12:14pm

Hurricane Sandy wrecking havoc on the East Coast and leaving many without power reminded me of an important topic we have not yet covered here on iRunnerBlog: Food Safety. This topic is important year round, but special attention should be paid to it during emergencies when electrical power is lost and during food-centric holidays/gatherings (which happen to be right around the corner). Who wants to risk a food borne illness which could result in anything from mild discomfort, diarrhea and dehydration [which can negatively interfere with your training and racing schedule] to something more severe like hospitalization or even death? Not me…and if I had to guess, none of you do either! So let’s walk through some basic food safety guidelines.

Power Outage: If power is out for less than 4 hours your refrigerated food is most likely fine, although it would be best to inspect it a bit more closely than normal prior to consuming. Longer than 4 hours, and we are now concerned about refrigerated food being held in the “danger zone” (between 41°F – 140°F) for too long, making it susceptible to excessive bacterial growth. Food stored in the freezer on the other hand is safe for approximately 48 hours with a full freezer or about 24 hours with a 1/2 full freezer. **Note: These time ranges are based upon you keeping the doors shut as much as possible. Opening the refrigerator/freezer doors excessively will significantly decrease the time your food will remain at a safe temperature**. Here are some general food safety guidelines to follow:

  • Keep a thermometer in your refrigerator and freezer. Year round this will help alert you to any issues with your unit. The refrigerator should be below 41°F and the freezer should be close to 0°F. During a situation where power is lost the thermometers can be used to tell you if food is still safe (below 41°F) or not.
  • Throw out any perishable food like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, soft cheeses or leftovers which have been above 40°F for longer than 2 hours. For a complete list of what needs to be discarded and what is safe, check out this list .
  • If a power outage is likely stock up on shelf stable food, boxed/canned/dry milk, canned goods, and ready to eat food for babies and pets.
  • Store shelf stable food in top cupboards/shelves. This way if flooding occurs they are less likely to be ruined and made unsafe.
  • Eat the ice cream first. Okay, this one is my personal advice, not an official recommendation. This summer a massive storm ripped through Virginia leaving many folks without power for weeks. I was only in the dark for about 2 days, but I really regret not making more of an effort to polish off the container of ice cream I had in my freezer. By the time power came back on the ice cream had melted all over the freezer creating a huge mess, which was annoying as I hate cleaning. The other negative, it felt down right wrong to being throwing away something as tasty as ice cream!

Holidays and Food-Focused Events: Whether it is Thanksgiving, Easter, the Superbowl, or a random gathering, food is generally a central feature of any event. Unfortunately, amidst all of the excitement of celebration, catching up, and exchanging gifts food safety may not be a top priority. As the holiday season approaches here are some tips to keep in mind whether you are hosting loved ones or being a guest yourself:


  • Hand washing. Needs to be done before and after handling food, with warm soap and water, for at least 20 seconds. When I took a ServSafe course I was taught to tell people to “sing the Happy Birthday song twice” to make sure hands were washed for long enough.
  • Separate. Prevent cross-contamination by keeping raw meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and their juices away from foods that will not be cooked. To make this simple, use one cutting board, set of utensils, and portion of the counter top for raw foods that need cooking, one cutting board, set of utensils, and area of counter space for raw foods that will not be cooked, and another setup for foods that have been cooked and are waiting for final touches/to be served.
  • Check the temp. Use a food thermometer to ensure that meat/poultry/seafood have been cooked to a safe internal temperature. This mean 165°F for turkey (and it’s stuffing). Follow this link for a list of temperatures other items must be cooked to.
  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Ever notice how food tends to stay out for an extended period of time at events? If it is not kept in warming or cooling containers be mindful of going back for seconds or thirds. The pizza which arrived 30 minutes before kickoff at a football viewing party? May want to hold off on another slice late in the game!
  • For more holiday-focused food safety tips I recommend reading FDA Food Safety for Holidays .
Finally, for both of these scenarios and for everyday eating the following mantra needs to become ingrained in your head: “When in Doubt, Throw it Out!”

What did you do to insure your food was safe the last time the power went out? What are your Thanksgiving Day plans? Anyone have any food-borne illness/food poisoning stories that interfered with a run or race? [A year ago I ate some bad yogurt which made for a VERY bad bike ride...].


(Tanya is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and is pursuing her PhD in Nutrition and Exercise Science at Virginia Tech. After graduating with her Bachelor’s in Dietetics, Tanya completed an American Dietetic Association (ADA) approved Dietetic Internship through the University of Houston. She has completed many road races from 5k to marathon. Follow her on Twitter @nutritionnerd and at her personal blog Dine, Dash & Deadlift .)


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