Worn down by repeated blackouts for hours on end, many of us have become disheartened by yet another announcement of Eskom’s problems.
We’re inconvenienced in every aspect of our lives, from home to traffic to work - and when we return, to a home in darkness, our security is compromised and our fridge contents are once again at risk. So, it’s hurting us in the pocket.
Throwing food away is not usually an easy choice for most of us in the developing world and in a country such as ours - rife with food insecurity and poverty - it’s inexcusable.
And yet, we’re forced to for food safety reasons.
Dr Lucia Anelich, who’s due to take up her seat as president of the International Union of Food Science and Technology next year, says she’s concerned not enough attention is being paid to food safety - particularly during power outages. She says the duration and frequency of blackouts can and will affect the safety of food in your fridge.
She says if the power goes out, refrigerated food should be safe as long as the power is out for “no more than four hours, the refrigerator door is kept shut and the fridge was running at 4°C at the time of load shedding”.
However, most fridges do not run at optimal temperatures and some perishable foods are more susceptible to spoilage than others. These include deli and fresh meats, poultry, fish and dairy - and even leftovers.
“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 four-hour time period may be even shorter in such cases. It’s then best to discard foods in the above list if the outage is longer than two hours and where the fridge temperature is higher than 4°C.”
Anelich advises that you check your fridge’s temperature with a thermometer, because different bacteria start growing at different temperatures and for every 1ºC increase above that minimum growth temperature, bacterial numbers in food doubles. So, if the power goes out, it’s essential to keep the door closed to ensure that the temperature stays as low as possible.
Frozen foods though remain frozen for up to 48 hours - if the freezer door is kept closed. If any foods start to thaw, they cannot be refrozen and must be cooked as soon as possible.
She warns that the taste and smell tests are not reliable. “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.”
To prepare for blackouts, consider doing the following:
1. Ensure the fridge is running at 4°C or as close as possible.
2. Freeze refrigerated items that can be frozen such as milk, fresh meat and poultry, etc.
3. If you don’t have a freezer (or it’s full), consider buying smaller quantities of fresh food, cook and consume them quickly.
4. Consider buying long-life products, such as long-life milk and other beverages and canned foods, which have a long shelf-life outside the refrigerator, while unopened. Once open though, tinned foods need to be decanted before being refrigerated.
5. Add frozen ice packs to the fridge to keep perishable foods as cold as possible.
But food is not the only consideration during a blackout - once the power returns, your appliances are at risk of power surge damage.
Wynand van Vuuren, client experience partner at King Price, says TVs, fridges and computers are at particular risk of being damaged by power surges.
“It’s worth installing surge protectors and UPS (uninterruptible power supply) systems in your house, especially for your most valuable appliances,” says Van Vuuren.
“UPS allows you to shut your appliances down properly when the power goes off, and stops power surges from destroying your pride and joy, like that brand new 55-inch TV screen in your living room.”
He advises consumers to check their household insurance to see what they are covered for. When your food spoils in your fridge, it’s good to know whether or not you’re covered for fridge or freezer contents. And often, damage to appliances from power surges cannot be claimed from an insurance company.
* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.