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USDA Offers Advice on Keeping Food Safe When the Power Goes Out

Power outages are a major concern when severe weather strikes. Extended periods without power – such as the outage many Hannibal residents faced last May after straight-line winds damaged much of the city – can lead to contamination of food stored in refrigerators and freezers. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, “ Power outages from weather emergencies compromise the safety of stored food, but consumers can take steps to reduce food waste and the risk of food-borne illness.”  

Ethan Miller, Getty Images

A number of guidelines have been issued by the USDA to help those who lose power store their perishable food items, and to help prevent illness following an outage.

Steps to follow if the power goes out:

  • Keep appliance thermometers in both the refrigerator and the freezer to ensure temperatures remain food safe during a power outage. Safe temperatures are 40°F or lower in the refrigerator, 0°F or lower in the freezer.
  • Freeze water in one-quart plastic storage bags or small containers prior to a storm. These containers are small enough to fit in around the food in the refrigerator and freezer to help keep food cold. Remember, water expands when it freezes so don’t overfill the containers.
  • 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.
  • Know where you can get dry ice or block ice.
  • Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerator food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours.
  • Group foods together in the freezer—this ‘igloo’ effect helps the food stay cold longer.
  • Avoid putting food outside in ice or snow, because it attracts wild animals or could thaw when the sun comes out.
  • Keep a few days’ worth of ready-to-eat foods that do not require cooking or cooling.
  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. A refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours if the door is kept closed. A full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours (24 hours if half-full).
  • Place meat and poultry to one side of the freezer or on a tray to prevent cross contamination of thawing juices.
  • Use dry or block ice to keep the refrigerator as cold as possible during an extended power outage. Fifty pounds of dry ice should keep a fully-stocked 18-cubic-foot freezer cold for two days.

Steps to follow after a weather emergency:

  • Check the temperature inside of your refrigerator and freezer. Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs or leftovers) that has been above 40°F for two hours or more.
  • Check each item separately. Throw out any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture or feels warm to the touch.
  • Check frozen food 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.
  • Never taste a food to decide if it’s safe.
  • When in doubt, throw it out.

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