Why load shedding can be a health risk and what you can do about it

Not sure if that packet of chicken went off? Better be safe than sorry.
Not sure if that packet of chicken went off? Better be safe than sorry.

Load shedding is currently causing much frustration in South Africa – from traffic woes, damage to appliances, loss of productivity to general dissatisfaction.

To crown it all, load shedding can also pose a health risk. It's the height of summer, and supermarkets need to keep their perishables cool – but what happens when the power goes off.

Spoiled food can have dire consequences.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, all perishable food such as raw meat, fruit or vegetables, should be refrigerated or frozen within two hours of being "out" or after being purchased. Exposure to room temperature (4.44 to 60° Celsius) pushes food into the “danger zone”, where the growth of bacteria that can make you sick is more likely.

In a freezer, food should be kept at or below freezing, which is 0° Celsius, or 32° Fahrenheit. When food is kept in cold storage, it slows down or stops the growth of bacteria. Freezing kills bacteria completely, but above freezing point, bacterial growth simply slows down. Food can still spoil, especially when your produce in the freezer thaws slightly due to a power outage. 

Unfortunately, load shedding can subject fresh produce to up to five hours of room temperature at a time. Here’s how you can keep your produce fresh and avoid a potential foodborne illness:

1. Keep your fridge in a tip-top condition

Make sure your fridge is in proper working condition, as a fridge at the correct temperature remains cold for a while the power is out. And a freezer in good working order should be able to hold its temperature for around 48 hours. Place delicate food items such as dairy and meat closest to the freezer compartment to keep them cold for longer.

2. Extra ice

Make ice blocks in your freezer while the power is on. Place these in your fridge during power outages to ensure that your fridge remains cold for longer.

3. Plan your day

You might arrive at your local grocery store, only to discover that they're experiencing load shedding. Some large supermarkets have generators, but might still not be able to keep the required temperature in the fridges and freezers, which may cause produce to go off. If this is the case, rather go back another time.

You also want to reduce the time your groceries spend in the car. Do your grocery shopping last before heading home so that you can get perishable items into the fridge as soon as possible. Traffic jam? Have a cooler bag with ice bricks in the car to keep meat, dairy and frozen produce cool while you're on the road.

4. Bottles of frozen water

You might want to guarantee a supply of cold water, especially during the summer months. Keep a couple of filled water bottles in the freezer, which you can place in the fridge during load shedding.

5. Don’t ignore possible symptoms of food poisoning

Not sure whether you have food poisoning or a stomach bug? While a stomach bug should simply run its course and can be treated at home, food poisoning can be extremely dangerous, especially in the case of infants and the elderly who can dehydrate quickly. Watch out for the warning signs of food poisoning – including symptoms like abdominal cramps, fever, headaches, nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting.

6. Shop smart

Meal-plan for the worst-case scenario, as load shedding can be moved to a higher level without much warning. Food24 has a selection of electricity-free recipes that can be prepared during load shedding. Buy meat and fresh produce in smaller quantities to avoid a big loss when these items go off.

7. Keep the house cool and clean

Without electric air conditioners and fans, inside temperatures will rise. Keep your house cool by ensuring that windows are open. You can also invest in battery-operated fans.

8. Practise good hygiene

Wash your hands to avoid the spread of bacteria, and avoid consuming food if you suspect that it has remained too warm for too long and might have become spoiled.

9. Keep medicine at hand

Update your first aid kit with the essentials for an upset stomach and keep it within easy reach as no-one wants to fumble for medication in the dark when they get sick.

Image credit: iStock

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