11 Tips for Keeping Food Safe When the Power Goes Out
A couple of years back, 600 million people in India were without power for two days. It was not only lights out – but lights out for half of the population. Can you imagine the chaos?
More recently, there have been significant power outages in North America. In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy brought high winds and coastal flooding to a large portion of the eastern United States, leaving an estimated 8 million customers without power.
Not quite as bad but serious none-the-less, the ice storms of December 2013 cumulatively left over 1 million people without power.
When the power goes out (commonly called “grid down”), so do transportation systems, manufacturing systems, communications systems and of course, household systems. And what about those household systems? The first thing that comes to mind is heating and cooling when the temperate drops to below freezing or the heat swelters to 90 degrees Fahrenheit with 80% humidity.
Personal comfort aside, there is a big issue with our dependence on refrigeration in keeping food safe. In recent weeks, I have been asked about food safety when the grid is down. One of the more specific questions has been “what is safe to eat after thawing and being re-frozen following a power outage?”.
I can not say that I am an expert on the subject, but I can share some guidelines to follow when the power grid goes down for more than a few hours.
Keeping Food Safe When the Power Goes Out
1. Place appliance thermometers in both the refrigerator and the freezer. After a power outage, check the temperature to determine whether your food is still safe to consume. Safe temperatures are 40°F or lower in the refrigerator, 0°F or lower in the freezer.
2. Keep your freezer as full as possible. Fill empty juice or milk jugs with water and keep them in the freezer (unless you need the space for food, of course). If the power grid goes down, you can use these frozen blocks of ice to maintain the cold temperature in your refrigerator and/or to keep the temperature in your freezer colder for a longer period. A full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours but only 24 hours if half-full.
3. Place ice cubes in zipper-type bags and place them in the freezer. Later, if the power goes out, keep the freezer door closed. When the power is restored, leave the freezer door closed long enough for it to go back to its normal, freezing temperature. If the ice cubes have melted into a bag of solid ice, you will know that everything in the freezer thawed and is likely unsafe.
4. Have a minimum of a week’s supply of ready-to-eat food that does not require cooking or refrigeration after being opened.
5. Do not open the refrigerator and freezer doors unnecessarily. Take out what you need quickly then close the doors and keep them closed. A refrigerator will keep food cold for four to six hours if the door is kept closed.
6. Have coolers on hand that can be used to store the refrigerated foods that you think you will need for the short term. Use the frozen jugs of ice from your freezer to keep the food in your cooler cold. This will mitigate having to open and close the refrigerator door unnecessarily.
7. The following foods are generally safe to store at room temperature for a few days. Even if they are normally kept in the refrigerator, they will be safe to consume even if the power is out for 1 or 2 days.
• Butter and margarine
• Hard cheeses (such as Cheddar, Swiss)
• Fresh fruits and vegetables
• Fruit juices
• Opened jars of salad dressing, peanut butter, jelly, relish, barbecue sauce
• Mustard, ketchup, and olives
8. When the power comes back, check the temperature inside of your refrigerator and freezer. Discard perishable food that has been above 40°F for two hours or more. Definitely discard the following:
• Raw or cooked meat, poultry, seafood
• Meat-topped pizza, lunchmeat
• Casseroles, stews or soups
• Milk/cream, yogurt, soft cheese (such as Feta and Brie)
• Mayonnaise, tartar sauce, or creamy dressings
• Cooked pasta, potato, rice and salads prepared from these foods
• Fresh eggs, egg substitutes
9. Check each item separately. Throw out any food that has an unusual odor, color, or texture, or feels warm to the touch. With frozen food, check for ice crystals. The food in your freezer that partially or completely thawed may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is 40°F or below.
Note: When power is restored, if you can, leave the freezer and refrigerator doors closed long enough for them to go back to their normal, operating temperatures.
10. Frozen foods that have been partially defrosted during an outage should be cooked or reheated to a minimum temperature of 160 degrees.
11. When in doubt, dump it. And never, ever taste food to determine whether it is safe to eat.
Food Safety Reference Charts
There are a number of food safety charts available at the FoodSafety.gov website. These charts can be used as a guide when determining whether your food is safe to eat following an outage. For some people, the charts may be on the conservative side – this is the US Government, after all – so there may be some individual instances where food may be safer for a period longer than shown, depending on how cold your refrigerator or freezer was to begin with.
You need to be mindful of your own comfort level. In my my own household, if the temperature goes above 36-38°F for any period of time – even 30 minutes – out it goes. Your mileage may vary.
What to Eat When the Power Goes Out?
But beyond that, having a simple rocket stove or other outdoor cooking device can save the day. Even if the only thing you do is boil water, having some way to heat your soup or activate some of your freeze-dried food will be a godsend. This is especially true if the power is out for days which calls attention to the question: do you have at least three days worth of food that does not require heating or cooking of any type?
The Final Word
For the rest of us, our reliance on electricity to keep our food safe is huge. Sure you can buy insurance to cover any food loses following an outage, but like the gift that keeps on giving, a claim will likely result in increased premiums for years to come and who wants that?
The best time to prepare for an off-grid emergency is now, while the power is still on. A low-cost investment in freezer and refrigerator thermometers plus taking the time to store some frozen jugs of water may make the difference between having a full freezer and refrigerator of food or a dumpster full of smelly, spoiled and unsafe food.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!