Power Outages and Food Safety
As the Southeast braces for more hurricanes and West Coast residents cope with summertime power outages from insufficient energy supplies, it’s critical to take steps to ensure your home food supply is safe.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued the following guidelines to protect Americans from foodborne illnesses.
Before a Weather Emergency
- Buy appliance thermometers to continuously monitor refrigerator and freezer temperatures. They will indicate whether your freezer temperature is at or below 0°F and the refrigerator is at or below 40°F. These are the safe ranges for food. Temperatures above these levels compromise food safety.
- To prepare for emergencies, freeze containers of water to create blocks of ice that can help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator or a cooler if you lose power.
- Freeze refrigerated items—leftovers, milk, fresh meat and poultry—that you may not need immediately. If you lose power, this will help keep them at a safe temperature for a longer period.
- Plan ahead. As you shop, make note of markets where you can purchase dry ice and block ice.
- If you live in a flood-prone area, eliminate the risk of tainting food with contaminated water by storing nonperishable items on high shelves.
- Buy portable coolers that will keep refrigerated food cold if your power goes out for more than 4 hours. Purchase or make ice cubes, and store them in the freezer for such use. You may also purchase freezer gel packs.
- When arranging food in your freezer, keep packages together (touching). This helps them stay cold longer.
During/After a Weather Emergency
- If you experience a blackout, keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain cold temperatures. If unopened, the refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about 4 hours. With a full freezer, you have 48 hours of protection (24 hours if it’s half full and the door remains closed).
- If the power outage lasts for several days, check your freezer’s temperature with the interior appliance thermometer or food thermometer. You can safely refreeze food if it still contains ice crystals or its temperature is 40°F or lower. If you didn’t have a thermometer inside the freezer before the power failure, you’ll need to test each individual item with a thermometer. Never taste food to determine its safety!
- Use dry or block ice to keep your refrigerator and freezer as cold as possible if you’re told that power will be out for an extended period. About 50 lbs. of dry ice should maintain an 18-cubic-foot full freezer for 2 days.
- Throw away refrigerated perishables—meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items— after 4 hours without power.
- Drink only bottled water if flooding has occurred. Discard all food that has come in contact with flood waters, including canned goods. Also throw away wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers.
- Thoroughly wash all metal pans, ceramic dishes and utensils that have come in contact with flood water with hot, soapy water. Sanitize by boiling them in clean water or by immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 teaspoon of chlorine bleach per quart of water.
The Bottom Line
When in doubt, always throw it out!
If you have specific questions about food safety, call the USDA’s toll-free Meat and Poultry Hotline at (888) MP-HOTLINE. Staff members field questions (in English and Spanish) from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (EST) Monday through Friday. Recorded food safety messages are available 24/7.
Click here to watch a short film on keeping food safe during an emergency. You will need Windows Media Player (which is probably already installed on your computer) to view it. You can download the latest version for free by clicking here.