How to keep food safe during a power outage

When the power goes out, the food in your refrigerator and freezer can get up to temperatures that make it no longer safe to eat.

Isabel Brown

As the East Coast braces for a huge winter storm that’s expected to hit this weekend, cities are already preparing for massive power outages. When the power goes out, the food in your refrigerator and freezer can get up to temperatures that make it no longer safe to eat. Knowing what’s still good to eat and what should get thrown away can help prevent you from wasting food and getting sick.

If you anticipate a power outage, there are steps you can take to keep your food from going bad:
  • Stock up on shelf-stable and canned foods. Because these foods don’t need to be refrigerated, they’ll stay safe to eat whether the power is out or not. But make sure to check the date label to be sure the item isn’t going to expire before you need it.

  • Keep a thermometer in your refrigerator and freezer. This can help you determine how safe your food is if the power goes out. Your freezer should be 0 °F or colder and your refrigerator should be at 40 °F or below. Bacteria grow most rapidly at temperatures between 40 °F and 140 °F. Keeping food out of the “Danger Zone” is key to keeping it safe. 

  • Plan ahead and know where to find dry ice and block ice. You can also freeze containers of water for ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator, or coolers after the power is out.

  • If you have foods like leftovers, milk and fresh meat in your refrigerator that you may not need immediately, put them in the freezer. This will help keep them at a safe temperature longer if the power goes out.

  • Group food together in the freezer. Stacking items close together will help keep them cold for longer. 

  • If there’s a chance of flooding, make sure you store food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated flood waters.

When the power goes out, use the thermometers in your fridge and freezer to monitor the temperature of your food. Perishable foods like meat, dairy, eggs and leftovers that get to 40 °F for more than two hours should get thrown out. This tool from FoodSafety.gov breaks down when to save and when to throw out the different foods in your refrigerator and freezer. 

Here’s how to keep food safe for as long as possible when the power goes out:
  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to keep them cold. The refrigerator will keep food at a safe temperature for about four hours if it’s unopened, and a full freezer will hold the temperature for about 48 hours (or 24 hours if it’s only half full and the door stays closed)

  • Fill your freezer with blocks of ice, dry ice or ice packs to keep it cold for longer. Fifty pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic-foot full freezer for two days.

  • Never taste food to determine if it’s still good. When in doubt, throw it out.

When the power comes back on:
  • Frozen foods that are still at 40 °F or below can be safely refrozen.

  • If you don’t have a thermometer in your freezer, check each package of food. If it is still frozen or contains ice crystals, the food is safe.

  • Throw out any refrigerated perishable foods like meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli products after four hours without power.

  • Again, never taste food to determine if it’s still good. When in doubt, throw it out.

 

More information on food safety during power outages, storms and natural disasters is available on the USDA’s website.

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Isabel Brown

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