Food Safety in Power Outages

Everyday Providence author, Jennifer, is putting theory into practice during day two of a likely prolonged power outage.  Although power was restored to over half a million people in less than 24 hours, she and over 400,000 of her neighbors are facing heat, humidity, and up to a week until power is returned to their homes.  She emailed me with her situation report, tentative plans and a few questions dealing with food safety.  It's high time we publish a emergency food safety article, so here it is!

Myth: If the power goes out for more than two hours, I'm going to have to throw all my food away.  
  • Your refrigerator will probably hold its temperature for 4 hours if you don't open the door.  
  • Tip: From the moment the power goes out, don't open the door.  I actually tape it shut so no one forgets.  If these power outage lasts 4 hours, then I might add ice and rearrange ingredients.
  • A deep freeze will stay frozen two days if it's full and one day if it's half full.  
  • Tip: Those bottles of water frozen in the bottom are a cheap insurance policy.
  • A freezer with an attached fridge will stay colder a shorter amount of time, but you can add dry ice, block ice, or bag ice to any freezer to preserve the temperature.  
  • Fifty pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic foot full freezer for 2 days.
  • Tip: Know where to buy dry ice and block ice now.  In a prolonged emergency, it will be bought up in hours.
Myth: You cannot refreeze thawed food.
  • If the food is partly frozen, still has ice crystals, or is at least 40 °F (as it were in a refrigerator.) You may refreeze it immediately.
Myth: My fridge got warm.  I'll have to throw it all out.
  • Although meat and most dairy need to go, there are a number of items that should be fine if the power was out less than a week.  Hard cheeses, condiments, breads, and other items may be safe to eat or refreeze.  You can find a chart of these items here.
  • Separate meat and poultry from other items in the refrigerator or freezer so that dripping juices won't contaminate other foods. 
  • Tip:  This is a safe way to store your food everyday. It's what the drawers are for. 
Myth: It's freezing outside, I can just put the food out there.
  • Although the air temperature might be cold enough, the sun's rays can still thaw food.  Also the hourly temperature variations can lead to a false sense of security about the safety of food. 
  • Tip: You can put water in bottles, buckets, and other containers outside to freeze and bring those in to store in the freezer. 
  • Food stored outside may also come in contact with contaminants from the soil, wind, and animals.  Temperature fluctuation also causes food quality issues.  
Myth: If the food smells and tastes alright, it's good to eat.
  • Two types of bacteria are at work here.  Spoilage bacteria make food deteriarate, smell bad and represent a quality issue; however, if you ate these bacteria the probably wouldn't make you ill.
  • Pathogenic bacteria grow rapidly between 40° and 140°F and do not affect taste, smell or appearance of food.  You usually cannot tell these are present, but they will make you ill.
  • Tip: An appliance thermometer is the best way to know the actual temperature in your refrigerator and freezer.  Consider buying one for each of your home appliances.  A food thermometer will help you know food's accurate internal temperature, which you can use regularly to check the doneness of meat as well.
What do I have to throw out?
  • Food that has been over 40 °F for more than two hours. (Use this chart for exceptions.)
  • All food contacted by dripping meat juices.
  • Items that have reduced quality from the temperature flux, like ice cream.
Related Articles
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Safety Tips:  Food
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