Arizona tackles power cutoffs; food safety an important issue

Knowing how harmful, or even deadly, extreme heat can be, the Arizona Corporation Commission last month approved tentative rules that would protect customers who haven’t paid their bills from having their electricity disconnected during periods of extreme heat or cold.

The draft rules, which were approved 3-2, added a temperature threshold of 95 degrees to the current calendar-based moratorium, which extends from June 1  to Oct. 15.

The emergency calendar-based shutoff ban was adopted in June 2019, following the heat-related death of an Arizona Public Service Co. customer whose power had been turned off for nonpayment.

Under the approved amendments offered by Commissioner Anna Tovar, electric utilities would be prohibited from shutting off electricity either when the temperature is above 95 degrees, or between June 1 and Oct. 15 each year.

The draft rules likely won’t be finalized until next year because the state wants to gather more information on its current moratorium, which will be in place from June 1 through Oct. 15.

Heat and health

When asked why this is such an important issue, Corporation Commissioner Anna Tovar, who proposed the tentative rules, told Food Safety News that heat is a serious threat to health. 

Commissioner Anna Tovar, right.

“Arizona is one of the hottest places in the country during the summer and our citizens are at risk for heat-related health problems more than other states,” she said. “I wanted to make sure our citizens were safe and not at risk from heat-related injury because their electricity was shut off over an unpaid bill.” 

She said she chose the 95 degree benchmark because she looked at the heat-related health and death data and based her amendments on what will protect the health and safety of Arizonans.

She said that in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, more than 90 percent of heat-related deaths occur between June and September. In addition, more than 95 percent of heat deaths occur when the temperature is above 90 degrees.

Considering that in the Phoenix area, the average high is above 95 degrees from May and September, she said she felt that giving the utilities the choice between a calendar moratorium of June 1 to Oct. 15 or a temperature moratorium of 95 degrees addressed the health and safety concerns for heat-vulnearable populations.

Currently, nine states have temperature-based shutoffs. Of those states the temperatures range from 95 degrees (NJ, MD, IT, MO, and AR), 98 degrees (GA), and 105 degrees (DE and NV). Six other states (including Arizona under the prior rules) prohibit disconnection in “extreme heat,” based on the National Weather Service’s extreme-weather advisories.

Go here for information about Maricopa County and heat-related deaths: https://docket.images.azcc.gov/E000012381.pdf?i=1619558986954

And, yes, climate change is part of this picture.

“It’s the major reason why Arizona’s summers are getting hotter, Tovar said.

According to the Billion Dollar Weather Disasters database compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, heat waves are listed as four of the top 10 deadliest U.S. disasters since 1980. And extreme heat, more than all other impacts (except hurricanes) combined, is one of the leading causes of weather-related deaths in the United States, killing over 600 per year

What about food safety?

“It’s a food-safety crisis in the making,” said one food-safety expert referring to the effect of high temperatures, electricity cutoffs and food poisoning. “If food isn’t kept at the right temperature, it isn’t safe.”

The numbers say it all when it comes to how serious this is. According to FDA estimates, there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually – the equivalent of sickening 1 in 6 Americans each year. And each year these illnesses result in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.

Many foods, among them meat, milk and eggs, start to spoil when the temperature rises above 40 degrees. After food warms to that temperature, you have just two hours in which you can either return it to cold conditions or cook it — or toss it.

According to the American Meat Science Association, the ideal temperature for storing fresh meat is 28 degrees F to 32 degrees F. As storage temperatures approach 40 degrees F, its perishability increases. 

Rapid growth of bacteria begins at about 50°F.

Mold, parasites and potentially deadly bacteria including Salmonella and E. Coli procreate in rotten food, particularly spoiled meat. 

According to the Hendricks, IN, Public Health Department, foods whose temperatures are between 42 degrees F and 140 degrees F are considered to be in the “Danger Zone,” and that germs that can cause foodborne illness grow very quickly on foods held at temperatures in the “Danger Zone.”

Foods that fall into the “Danger Zone” should be thrown away.

The Food and Drug Administration warns that consuming dangerous foodborne bacteria will usually cause illness within 1 to 3 days of eating the contaminated food. However, sickness can also occur within 20 minutes or up to 6 weeks later. 

Although most people will recover from a foodborne illness within a short period of time, some can develop chronic, severe, or even life-threatening health problems.

Foodborne illness can sometimes be confused with other illnesses that have similar symptoms. The symptoms of foodborne illness can include:

•Vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain

•Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, and body aches

According to the FDA, while everyone is at risk of developing foodborne illness, some groups are more likely to get sick than others. These groups include children, pregnant and post-partum women, people over 65, and those with compromised immune systems.

When asked how important the temperature of food is to human health, Blanca Caballero, Deputy Director, Maricopa County Environmental Services Department, didn’t mince words.

“Temperature is extremely critical to food safety,” she said, “as it can prevent or result in a foodborne illness.  Keeping food products under temperature control, and out of the temperature danger zone, limits the growth of pathogenic bacteria and toxin formation.” 

She pointed out that when food is in the temperature danger zone, which is between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F, bacteria multiply rapidly and can easily lead to foodborne illness.  

“Taking too much time to cool foods to safe temperatures has been consistently identified as one of the leading contributing factors to foodborne illness,” she said. “During slow cooling, time/temperature controls for safety foods are subject to the growth of a variety of pathogenic microorganisms.

Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, a Maricopa county public health official, said that many foods are harmful to eat if not kept at the right temperature for long enough a time. However, dairy, meat, eggs and other animal products are the most susceptible to spoiling.

She pointed out that there are a variety of foodborne pathogens that can be associated with food that is kept out of the safe temperature zone for too long.  Some of the most common ones are Staphylococcal food poisoning (https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/diseases/staphylococcal.html), which is caused by a toxin produced by the bacteria and Clostridium perfringens (https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/diseases/clostridium-perfringens.html), which also causes food poisoning via a toxin. 

Other common foodborne illnesses include those caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter, which are both bacteria typically associated with undercooked or spoiled chicken or eggs but can be associated with other foods. E. coli O157, which is often caused by contaminated meat and sometimes raw produce, is another bacteria that can cause severe foodborne illness, especially in young children.

Sunenshine said anyone can be vulnerable to foodborne illness. “But we know that young children, seniors and those with depressed immune systems can have more severe complications of foodborne illness.  Certain people, like pregnant women, can have severe illness when exposed to certain pathogens, like Listeria, which is why pregnant women have to be very careful with what they eat.

Blanca said that people living in a congregate setting, such as a home with a lot of people or several generations living in it, are more likely to experience a foodborne illness.

What’s next

Commission Chairwoman Lea Marquez Peterson said she wanted to keep the current rules process going, noting that the commission could make changes to the final rules based on additional required data about shutoffs and their impact this summer.

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