Byline: Nirav Shah, MBA, MPH, Food Safety Education Staff, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA
Publish: March 20, 2017
So you are outside in your backyard enjoying the spring/summer sun when suddenly, the sky becomes dark. The news report the night before mentioned a scattered shower would be coming through the area, but this dark cloud looks like a monster. You pack up your lawn chair and go inside just in time before the big down pour, hoping it will only last a few minutes. Within 15 minutes, you realize, this isn’t going to let up. The thunder roars, the lightning strikes and you hear a boom outside of your house and then the worst happens — the power goes out.
Now the anxiety begins to creep in. You start to think, “I hope the power doesn’t stay out long because I just went to the grocery store and stocked the refrigerator. I don’t want the food to go bad.”
Planning ahead plays a vital role in keeping your food safe before severe weather strikes and knowing how to determine if food is safe and how to keep food safe will minimize the potential loss of food and reduce the risk of foodborne illness. This is especially true for people with diabetes, who are at a higher risk for food poisoning.
Steps to Follow to Prepare for a Possible Weather Emergency:
Keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer. An appliance thermometer will indicate the temperature in the refrigerator and freezer in case of a power outage and help determine the safety of the food.
• Make sure the freezer is at 0 °F or below and the refrigerator is at 40 °F or below.
• Freeze containers of water for ice 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.
• Plan ahead and know where dry ice and block ice can be purchased.
• Store food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water in case of flooding.
• Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerator food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours. Purchase or make ice cubes and store in the freezer for use in the refrigerator or in a cooler. Freeze gel packs ahead of time for use in coolers.
• Group food together in the freezer—this helps the food stay cold longer.
Steps to Follow During and After the Weather Emergency:
• Never taste a food to determine its safety.
• 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 and the door remains closed).
• Food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40 °F or below.
• Obtain block ice or dry 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, then check the temperature of the freezer with an appliance thermometer or food thermometer. If the food still contains ice crystals or is at 40 °F or below, the food is safe.
• If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, then check each package of food to determine its safety. If the food still contains ice crystals, the food is safe.
• Discard refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers, and deli items after 4 hours without power.
• When in Doubt, Throw it Out!
See these charts to help you evaluate specific foods
• Refrigerated Foods: When to Save and When to Throw Out
• Frozen Food and Power Outages: When to Save and When to Throw Out
If you have questions about the food safety during natural disaster, or any other food safety topics, call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline at 1-888MPHotline or chat live with a food safety specialist at AskKaren.gov. These services are available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English and Spanish.