How to keep food safe in power outages, floods

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing recommendations to those affected by tornadoes and severe weather.

USDA officials are hopeful this information will help minimize the potential for foodborne illnesses due to food spoilage from power outages and other problems often associated with severe weather events.

“Power outages can occur at any time of the year, and it often takes from a few hours to several days for electricity to be restored to residential areas,” said Dr. Richard Raymond, M.D., USDA undersecretary for food safety. “Without electricity or a cold source, foods stored in refrigerators and freezers can become unsafe. Bacteria in food grow rapidly at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit; if these foods are consumed, people can become very sick.”

Before a weather emergency

  • Keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer. This will indicate the temperature in the refrigerator and freezer in case of a power outage and help you determine safety of the food.
  • Your freezer should be at 
0 degrees or below and refrigerator at 40 degrees or below.
  • Freeze containers of water to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator or coolers after the power is out.
  • Freeze refrigerated items such as leftovers, milk and fresh meat and poultry that you may not need immediately – this helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.
  • Determine ahead of time where you can buy dry ice or block ice locally.
  • Store food on shelves that will be out of the way in case of flooding.
  • Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerated food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours. Buy or make ice cubes and store in the freezer for use in the refrigerator or in a cooler. Freeze gel packs for use in coolers.
  • Group food together in the freezer – this helps the food stay cold longer.

After an emergency

  • 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 unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for about 48 hours (only 24 hours if half full) and the door is kept closed.
  • Discard perishable foods such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items after four hours without power.
  • Food may be refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40 degrees or below when checked with a thermometer.
  • Never taste a food to determine its safety.
  • Obtain dry or block ice to keep your refrigerator and freezer as cold as possible if the power is going to be out for a prolonged period of time. Fifty pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic-foot full freezer for two days.
  • If the power has been out for several days, check the temperature of the freezer with an appliance thermometer. If it reads 40 degrees or below, the food is safe to refreeze.
  • In the absence of a freezer thermometer, check each package of food to determine its safety. If the food still contains ice crystals, the food is safe.
  • Drink only bottled water if flooding has occurred.
  • Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance it has come into contact with flood water. Discard wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, babybottle nipples and pacifiers.
  • Undamaged, commercially prepared foods in all-metal cans and retort pouches (for example, flexible, shelf-stable juice or seafood pouches) can be saved. Follow the steps outlined for these foods in the publication “Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency,” which can be found online at FSIS.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets.
  • Thoroughly wash all metal pans, ceramic dishes and utensils that came in contact with flood water with hot soapy water. Sanitize afterward by boiling them in clean water or by immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water.
  • And the best advice, if all else fails: When in doubt, throw it out.

Jane Proctor is Trimble County’s Cooperative Extension agent for family and consumer services. For more information on food safety, call the Trimble County Cooperative Extension Service at (502) 255-7188.