Important Things to Know About Food Safety Before, During, and After a Power Outage
Protect your household from foodborne illnesses by learning what refrigerated foods you should throw out in the event of an extended power outage.
Power outages affect a home on multiple fronts: HVAC systems stop cooling or heating, evening and night hours grow uncomfortably dark, cell phone battery life becomes a precious resource, and that’s not the half of it. Food safety in the midst of a power outage is another serious concern, as refrigerators and freezers stop cooling as soon as power cuts out.
Knowing how long food in the fridge during a power outage remains safe to eat depends on the type of food and length of the power outage. Every year, an estimated 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The vital information in this guide can both help keep your household healthy and minimize the cost of replacing thrown away frozen and refrigerated foods. Whether you experience a summer brownout, winter storm power outage, or local outage from a fallen tree taking out power lines, follow these tips and timelines on what’s still good in your refrigerator to stay safe.
Monitoring Fridge and Freezer Temperatures
Knowing the temperatures inside your refrigerator and freezer is key when determining whether your food is safe to eat after a power outage. According to the CDC, refrigerators should be kept at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and freezers should be kept at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. However, because many refrigerators and freezers do not have a thermostat—and those that do may not provide accurate temperature readings—it can be difficult to know exactly how cold it is inside the appliance’s compartments.
Purchasing a couple of inexpensive appliance thermometers will let you easily monitor the temperature of your refrigerator and freezer before, during, and after a power outage to determine if the food stored inside is still safe to eat. Choose an analog model with an easy-to-read temperature dial, like this Rubbermaid refrigerator thermometer available at Amazon. Fridge and freezer thermometers can also cue you into issues with your appliances even when the power is running, such as if your fridge isn’t cooling and needs to be repaired or replaced.
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Power Outage Duration
When determining whether food in the fridge or freezer is safe to eat after a power outage, there is no one cut and dry answer. One of the most important factors, however, is how long the outage lasts. The longer the power is out, the more refrigerated and frozen foods will become unsafe to consume.
A refrigerator power outage lasting 4 hours or fewer generally isn’t a concern. When the doors are left closed, the food inside a standard refrigerator should stay cold for approximately 4 hours. If the power outage lasts longer than this, move the refrigerator’s milk, meats, eggs, and other perishable items to a cooler filled with ice to keep them cold.
If your freezer is at least half full and remains closed, it should be able to maintain its recommended 0-degree Fahrenheit temperature for about 24 hours. If your power has been out for a full day, purchase a block of dry ice from a grocery or big box store and place it in the freezer to help the compartment maintain 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Check the appliance thermometer periodically to monitor the temperature, but avoid opening the door unnecessarily, which will raise the temperature.
A full freezer will keep food coldest for the longest length of time in a power outage. When the compartment door remains shut, a freezer should maintain the recommended 0-degree Fahrenheit temperature for about 48 hours, or 2 days. However, if you still have no electricity after 2 days, the temperature inside the freezer may rise, causing frozen items to begin defrosting. If the power has been out for a while—or you know that a long outage is likely—purchase some dry ice. About 50 pounds of dry ice will help a fully stocked,18-cubic foot freezer cold for about two days.
Food Safety Tips Before an Emergency
Staying prepared for a power outage makes keeping refrigerated and frozen food cold and safe to eat easier when the electricity cuts out. Follow these food safety recommendations before a blackout happens:
- Set your refrigerator temperature to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower and your freezer temperature to 0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.
- Monitor fridge and freezer temperatures with an appliance thermometer to ensure accuracy.
- Have coolers, ice cubes, and gel packs available and ready for use.
- Identify local retailers that sell dry ice; typically supermarkets and big box stores keep them in stock.
How to Maintain Food Safety During a Power Outage
During a power outage, there are several steps you can take to help maintain food safety and decrease the likelihood of foodborne illnesses:
- Avoid opening the fridge and freezer doors to keep compartment temperatures as low as possible.
- Place blocks of ice or dry ice in the fridge and freezer to keep foods colder longer.
- Move foods from the refrigerator to a cooler if the power remains out for 4 hours.
- If you have a gas stove or can cook food outside, cook and eat meat stored in the fridge before it has a chance to spoil. Use a food thermometer to verify that it is cooked to a safe internal temperature.
- During a summer power outage, discard any perishable food items that have been left out for longer than 1 hour in indoor temperatures higher than 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
Food Safety Tips After Power Is Restored
Once a power outage ends, it’s essential to assess the safety of the food items in your refrigerator and freezer. Begin by checking the internal temperature of each compartment. Perishable refrigerated food that has been stored at a temperature greater than 40 degrees Fahrenheit for 4 hours must be thrown out. Food in the freezer that is still covered in ice crystals can be refrozen or cooked. If you have an appliance thermometer in your freezer that reads at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit once the power is restored, you can also safely refreeze or cook any of the freezer contents.
Foods You Should Toss
When cleaning out the refrigerator after a power outage, any perishable food items that have been stored at temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for 4 or more hours need to be thrown out. These include:
- Lunch meat
- Soft, shredded, and low-fat cheeses
- Cut fresh fruits
- Cut fresh vegetables
- Opened creamy dressings
Foods You Can Keep
While many items stored in the refrigerator must be discarded after a power outage lasting four or more hours, there are several foods that are safe to keep if kept above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for 2 or more hours. These include:
- Uncut fresh fruits
- Uncut fresh vegetables
- Opened or unopened canned fruits
- Opened or unopened fruit juices
- Hard cheeses
- Butter and margarine
- Peanut butter
- Soy and barbecue sauces
- Opened vinegar-based dressings
- Bread, muffins, and cakes