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Food Safety During and After a Power Outage

By Alice Mullen, Cooperative Extension
December 17, 2008

As the hours, then days, creep by with no electricity, are you wondering what lurks inside your refrigerator or freezer?

Cleaning out the refrigerator and checking your freezer for the safety of its contents don't often at rise to the top of your to-do list, but an extended power outage is a good time for these tasks, according to the experts at UNH Cooperative Extension.

These food safety tips can help:

  • Keep appliance thermometers in the refrigerator and freezer at all times. Meat, poultry, fish and eggs need to be refrigerated at or below 40 degrees F. Frozen foods need to be stored at or below 0 degrees F. Digital, dial, or instant-read food thermometers and appliance thermometers will help you know if the food is at safe temperatures.

  • If you don't have an appliance thermometer, you can insert an instant-read food thermometer into the food and check its temperature.

  • Keeping an appliance thermometer in the freezer will help you evaluate the safety of frozen foods. When the power comes back on, check the thermometer. If the temperature reads 40 degrees F or below, the food is safe and may be refrozen.

  • If you don't have a thermometer in the freezer, check each package of food individually. Food is safe to refreeze if it still contains ice crystals. Partial thawing and refreezing may reduce the quality of some food, but the food will remain safe to eat.

  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature. The refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about four hours if it is unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) if the door remains closed.

  • For prolonged power outages, try to obtain dry or block ice to keep your refrigerator as cold as possible. Fifty pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic foot full freezer for two days. Use caution when handling dry ice.

  • Storing food outside isn't a good idea, even though the outside temperature is below 40 degrees F. Frozen food can thaw if exposed to the sun's rays, even when the temperature is very cold. Since the outside temperature could vary hour by hour, refrigerated food may become too warm and bacteria that cause foodborne illness could grow.

  • Additionally, perishable items left outside could be exposed to unsanitary conditions or to animals. Never eat food that has come in contact with an animal.

  • Rather than putting the food outside, consider taking advantage of cold temperatures by making ice. Fill buckets, empty milk cartons or cans with water and leave them outside to freeze. Then put the homemade ice in your refrigerator, freezer, or coolers.

  • Discard any perishable food (e.g., meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and leftovers) that have been above 40 degrees F for 2 hours. Be sure to discard any items in either the freezer or the refrigerator that have come into contact with raw meat juices.

  • Remember, you can't rely on appearance or odor to tell you whether a food is still safe to eat.

When in doubt, throw it out. It's much safer to throw out $150 worth of food than to end up in an emergency room. Think of it as a great way to make room in your refrigerator for all the extra holiday foods. Have a happy, healthy and safe holiday season.

To learn more, go to these web sites: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/PDF/Keeping_Food_Safe_During_An_Emergency.pdf


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