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Safe Handling of Refrigerated Food in a Power Outage

As a result of thunderstorms, hurricanes, and other disturbances, power outages occur more often than we desire. Outages are not only an inconvenience, but also a safety issue, particularly when it comes to food. When refrigerators and freezers lose power, we worry about whether or not the food will be safe for our families. Knowing how to handle food while the power is off and when it has been restored will help to ensure that you and your family do not become victims of a foodborne illness. It is important to be prepared in advance to protect the safety of your food.

Basic supplies include:

  1. Food grade containers for storing water and food. Camping supply stores carry collapsible water containers.
  2. Disposable utensils (e.g., forks, knives, spoons, cups, plates)
  3. Manual can opener
  4. Sanitary hand wipes
  5. Thermometers: refrigerator, freezer, food (e.g. bimetallic)

Preparing your refrigerator and freezer requires organization and cleaning. Discard old or unnecessary food items, place a thermometer in the refrigerator, to monitor its temperature.  It should read 40° F or less.  In preparation for a power outage, set the temperature controls to be colder. Purchase dry ice to be used when power is out to keep refrigerated food cold longer. Keep foods close together.

Organize the freezer compartment by grouping meat and poultry on one side or on separate trays so that, in the event of thawing, their juices will not contaminate each other or other foods. Freezer temperature should be 0° F or lower. If the freezer is not full, fill and freeze containers of water to fill the space.  The frozen water will slow down the temperature increase in the event of a power failure.  You can also place frozen water in the refrigerated section.

Generally, if there is a power outage, a well insulted refrigerator/freezer will maintain refrigeration/freezing temperatures for several hours to 2 days, provided that the door is kept closed and only opened infrequently. Monitor the temperature of the refrigerator and freezer.  An unopened refrigerator will keep food safe for 4 hours. A full freezer that is unopened will keep food frozen for 48 hours.

Perishable foods that have been exposed to temperatures above 40° F for over 2 hours should be thrown out.  Never taste food to determine its safety. If unsure of the length of time that your perishable food has been exposed to temperatures above 40° F use a food thermometer.  If the internal temperature reads 40° F or above, discard the food item.

If the temperature of the refrigerator rises above 40°F (4°C) for more than two hours, you will need to discard the perishable foods listed below:

  • meat, poultry, seafood
  • cold cuts, hot dogs
  • casseroles
  • custards, pudding
  • cream, sour cream
  • soft cheeses, shredded cheeses, low-fat cheeses
  • yogurt, milk
  • eggs
  • creamy salad dressings, fish sauces, hoisin sauce, opened spaghetti sauce
  • cookie dough, refrigerator biscuits or rolls
  • cooked pasta, rice, pasta salads
  • pizza
  • cut fresh fruits
  • greens, cooked vegetables, opened vegetable juice
  • baked or mashed potatoes, potato salad

Any food that has an unusual odor, color, or texture also should be discarded. Never taste foods to determine their safety!

Foods that are safe, even if held at 40°F (4°C) or above for more than two hours, are:

  • hard and processed cheeses that are properly wrapped
  • grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses
  • margarine that is properly wrapped
  • canned or uncut fresh fruit and fruit juices (but discard if they look, feel, smell, or taste unusual)
  • fresh vegetables, canned vegetables
  • herbs, spices
  • breads, rolls, cakes, muffins, bagels, pancakes, waffles
  • peanut butter, jelly, relish, mustard, ketchup, olives
  • taco, barbecue, and soy sauces

Opened jars of mayonnaise, tartar sauce, or horseradish (unless held at 50°F for more than eight hours)–then throw them away

Frozen foods that have partially or completely thawed can be refrozen if they contain ice crystals. If they have completely thawed but are still at a temperature of 40°F or below, they also can be refrozen. Use a food thermometer to check the temperature of the food. Although partial thawing and refreezing of these foods will be safe, the quality of some foods, especially vegetables and fruits, may be reduced. Hard cheeses, breads, and fruits and vegetables and their juices–if they look and smell normal–can be refrozen even if they have been above 40°F (4°C) for more than two hours.

One way to ensure the safety of thawed meat products that have been above 40°F (4°C) for two hours or less is to cook them immediately. Either serve the food immediately or refreeze the cooked item. Be sure to cook to the proper temperatures, checking internal temperatures with a thermometer. Refrigerate and use within two days or freeze the leftovers immediately.

Don’t take chances on your family’s safety for the sake of a few dollars in groceries. Remember, when in doubt, throw it out!

 Resources

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service; U.S. Department of Agriculture; Meat and Poultry Food Safety Hotline, Phone: 1-800-535-4555