Surviving Load Shedding: How to Avoid Food Spoilage

Words: Crush

It’s safe to say that load shedding is here to stay. South African consumers and households are struggling to keep up with the increasing demands of load shedding, with power outages sometimes lasting up to four consecutive hours daily, if not more. This not only inconveniences local citizens’ daily lives but also makes everyday shopping and cooking a tiresome challenge.

Without a consistent source of power, our refrigerators are no longer running optimally and may struggle to maintain food at the correct temperature to keep it from spoiling. No longer can we trust expiry dates on labelled packaging, and relying on the sniff test might earn you a bad case of food poisoning. Furthermore, local consumers are faced with the dilemma of having to throw spoiled food away and with it, their money down the drain. With load shedding likely to persist for a couple of months, you might be stumped for answers as to how to shop and store your cold foods – you are not alone.

Keeping perishable foods safe during load shedding

According to the US Department of Agriculture, perishable foods like raw meat, poultry, seafood, dairy products and pre-cut fruits and vegetables, should be refrigerated at least two hours within purchasing or preparing to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. If not optimally refrigerated, the risk of bacterial contamination is higher.

Seems fairly simple, right? But with load shedding concerns, consumers now have to consider alternative solutions for shopping and storing cold foods safely to avoid spoilage. While trusty canned goods, dried foods and certain fruits and vegetables might not be a concern, perishable foods are susceptible to spoilage and causing illness.

Fresh foods such as dairy products (milk and cheese), proteins like fresh meat/poultry/seafood, carbohydrates and foods with high moisture content, are especially prone to spoilage and bacteria like Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria. Anyone who has ever experienced food poisoning will know that you should steer clear of the ‘danger zone’.

The danger zone refers to the temperature range between 4°C and 60°C. When certain foods reach this temperature range, it’s considered dangerous as it allows bacteria to thrive and grow exponentially, which can cause foodborne illness. Hot foods should be maintained at a temp above 60°C, while cold foods should be stored below 4°C to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.

Persistent load shedding makes it difficult to effectively store foods at desired temperatures. However, there are some measures you can take to optimally store cold foods and avoid interrupting the cold chain within your refrigerator and freezer…

How to optimally refrigerate and freeze foods

Tired of chucking food in the bin due to spoilage? It’s recommended to keep cold food stored between 1.6°C and 3.3°C. This helps to slow down the growth of bacteria and prevents food from spoiling quickly.

If you have load shedding, remove all of the ingredients needed for meal preparation from the fridge before you start cooking, instead of frequently opening and closing the fridge. Doing this interrupts the cold chain as cold air escapes and is replaced with warm air, which exposes the food to differing temperatures, potentially putting your food at risk for contamination. As a rule of thumb, avoid opening the fridge/freezer for two hours at a time.

Well-insulated refrigerators can generally keep food cold for up to four hours without power, provided that you don’t play peek-a-boo and open your fridge every five minutes.

Storing food in the freezer

When it comes to freezers, the good news is that food can remain frozen for up to 48 hours. Again, it’s important to avoid opening and closing the door unnecessarily – fortunately though, the freezer door tends to be used less frequently, so the interruption to the cold chain is minimised. It’s also worth noting that a fully stocked freezer will maintain temperatures better and longer compared to a partially filled freezer.

Frozen goods are also convenient to prepare – you can pop your favourite foods into the oven or air fryer (often directly from the freezer) for quick and easy meals ahead of, or just after load shedding.

If you avoid opening and closing your freezer frequently, frozen foods stand a better chance of surviving load shedding compared to fresh foods.

Shopping tips to avoid food spoilage

Here are some load shedding tips on how to shop effectively and how to safely package your food to minimise the risks of spoilage.

  • Coordinate your grocery shopping trips with your load shedding schedule. Purchase food while the power is still on at the grocery store. Consider whether you will have power when you arrive home.
  • Buying in bulk might be more convenient if you have a family to feed, but if you are sceptical of your refrigerator’s efficiency, consider buying less food at a time. Keep the bulk buying to items that can be frozen versus items kept in the fridge.
  • Purchase food from reputable grocers that follow proper food safety practices. When it comes to meat and poultry, avoid choosing the cheapest option if it looks questionable. Check for swelled packaging, this could be a sign of deterioration; if bacteria are present, they typically produce gasses such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen, which could cause the packaging to swell up.
  • Frozen or cold foods should be shopped and packed last. Leave the cold aisle for last when doing grocery shopping; when packing your groceries, place non-perishables at the bottom of your shopping bag and frozen or cold food items near the top of the bag to help them maintain lower internal temperatures.
  • Take a cooler or insulated bag for perishables, this will help to keep food items cool on your way home. Even better, throw an ice pack in to ensure certain groceries remain cold.
  • If you have errands to run, do them before your grocery shopping. Go directly home after doing grocery shopping and immediately store perishable foods in the fridge/freezer to avoid risking food spoilage.
  • The only way to determine whether cold foods are kept at appropriate temperatures (below 4°C) is to use a food thermometer. If you have one, test the food before refrigeration.
  • Store proteins and frozen goods in the lower part of your freezer, which might be cooler. If you have long bouts of load shedding, use ice packs to keep your fridge cold.

Perishables like fresh meat, fresh poultry and dairy products are largely susceptible to developing bacteria. With meat vendors and suppliers bearing the brunt of load shedding, even alternative power sources like generators might not have sufficient time to recharge and run at optimal temperatures to keep certain foods cold. While you might be willing to ‘risk it’ even with suspicions, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and discard potentially rotten meat, which ultimately could cost you more, healthwise.

How can I tell whether my food is spoiled?

It might be difficult to detect whether food has been spoiled, but there are noticeable signs of food spoilage:

Spoiled food usually emits a foul or rotten smell. Always check for strong or unpleasant odours. Unusual textures, such as sliminess or mushiness are also visible signs of food spoilage. Certain fresh foods should maintain a firm texture; apart from fresh poultry and meat, fresh fruits and vegetables that feel soft, slimy or sticky to the touch may be spoiled.

If the food tastes rancid, sour, bitter or has an unusual taste, this could mean it has gone bad. One way to potentially avoid spoilage is to check the expiration date. This is also important to bear in mind when doing grocery shopping.

Discard any food items that have passed their expiration date.

Consuming spoiled food can cause food poisoning or gastroenteritis, which can lead to symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and fever. It’s always best to safely discard items by either placing the spoiled food in a sealed plastic bag to contain any odours and prevent bacteria from spreading. Furthermore, ensure the trash can is securely closed to prevent animals from getting into it. Never pour spoiled food down the drain/toilet, as this could lead to clogging the pipes and attracting unwanted pests. Also, disinfect any surfaces the spoiled food has made contact with to avoid cross-contamination.

Some Tips on What to Buy to Avoid Wastage

Think about adding some of these items to your grocery trolley to make sure you’re prepared for load shedding outages.

Tinned food: Tinned foods like vegetables, fruits and soups are shelf-stable and simple to prepare.
Dried goods: Dried goods such as pasta, rice, beans and lentils can be stored at room temperature for an extended period of time.
Shelf-stable dairy products: Some dairy products, such as powdered and long life (UHT) milk last longer.
Nut butters: Peanut butter and other nut butters are shelf-stable and can be stored at room temperature for a long time.
Cured meats & biltong: Cured meats are high in protein and great for meals, plus they last longer. Biltong is also great for snacking.
Frozen protein & vegetables: If you’re finding that you’re throwing away fresh goods too often, consider frozen fish, chicken, meat and vegetable products. They’ll remain frozen during load shedding bouts and you can cook when you have power again. Freezing locks in nutrients and is convenient, so don’t feel you’re compromising on health by doing this.

Only time will tell when things will be ‘back to normal’ but for now it’s worth considering how you can optimally refrigerate certain foods and what shopping habits you can adopt to avoid serious risks of food spoilage.

Fresh out of dinner ideas? Try these Tasty & Simple Load Shedding Meal Ideas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>