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Safe Food when the Power Goes Out

by Drusilla Banks

Power outages happen from time to time, but this was one for the record books. Seventy-five mile per hour winds and blinding rain during the Monday, July 11, 2011, morning commute left more than 800,000 homes without power. In some areas, power was not restored for as long as six days.

It is difficult to prepare for any disaster emergency, but a little knowledge can go a long way. Recent power outages in the Chicagoland area have generated much conversation about food safety. The information below is designed to help protect you and your family during the next power outage, and it will happen again.

Plan ahead

  • Keep an appliance thermometer in both the refrigerator and freezer. Make sure the refrigerator temperature is at 40°F or below at all times.
  • Group foods together in both the refrigerator and freezer. This helps foods stay colder longer.
  • Keep the freezer full. Fill empty spaces with frozen plastic jugs of water, bags of ice, or gel packs. By the way, it is cheaper to run a full freezer than one that is less than full.
  • Freeze foods you may not need immediately, such as leftovers, milk and fresh meat and poultry. This will keep them at a safe temperature longer.
  • Have a large, insulated cooler and frozen gel packs on hand. Most perishable foods will stay safe in a refrigerator only about four hours.
  • Find out where the nearest dry ice and block ice can be purchased; record phone numbers and addresses

The safety of your food may be a problem following any storm where electricity has been interrupted for an extended period of time. When the power goes out, check the time. It is important to know exactly how long you have been without power. The following information is intended to help you judge the safety of your food after an outage.

Frozen food
As long as power is interrupted, keep the freezer door closed as much as possible. Food in most full, freestanding freezers will be safe for about two days and half-full freezers for about one day. If your freezer is not full, group packages together so they form an "igloo" protecting each other.

In freezers, food in the front, in the door, or in small, thin packages will defrost faster than large, thick items or food in the back or bottom of the unit.

For future reference: During a snowstorm, do not place perishable food out in the snow. Outside temperatures can vary and food can be exposed to unsanitary conditions and animals. Instead, make ice. Fill buckets, empty milk containers, or cans with water and leave them outside to freeze. Use the homemade ice in your refrigerator, freezer, or coolers.

Generally, it is safe to refreeze foods that still contain ice crystals or some frozen parts. Raw meats and poultry from the freezer can usually be refrozen without too much quality loss. Prepared foods, vegetables and fruits can normally be refrozen, but there may be some quality loss.

Refrigerated food
Food in a refrigerator is generally safe if the power was out for no more than a few hours. Adding block ice to the refrigerator will aid in keeping the food below 40°F for an additional time period. If at all possible, transfer food items to a refrigerator or freezer that is operating at a safe temperature.

Do not rely on the appearance or odor of a food to determine if it is safe. Bacteria that cause foodborne illness (food poisoning) can multiply rapidly on perishable foods that have been between 40°F and 135°F for more than two hours.

Be very careful with meat, poultry, and fish products or any food containing milk, cream, sour cream, soft cheese or eggs. Never taste food to determine its safety. When in doubt, it is usually best to throw it out.

Caution: Food can become contaminated without changing the way it looks, smells, or tastes. It may take hours, days or even weeks before you experience symptoms of illness; depending the which bacteria and how much you ate.

A variety of people may face special risks from eating contaminated foods. These groups include pregnant women, young children, people with chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, and older adults especially people over 65.

Cleaning up
After removing spoiled food; wash the interior of the refrigerator and freezer, including the door and gaskets, with hot water and baking soda. Repeat if necessary. Rinse with a mild sanitizing solution made with one tablespoon regular, unscented, non-gel, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water.

Remember, chlorine bleach is toxic at high levels. Using more bleach is not better. More will damage the plastic interiors and gaskets, fade colors, weaken fabric, and pit metal. Too much may reach a toxic level.

For more information and a detailed food chart to help evaluate the safety of your foods, visit the University of Illinois Extension Disaster Resource Website at Make a copy to keep for reference. Available in English and Spanish; USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline: 888-674-6854, Mon. through Fri., 9 a.m.–3 p.m. CT. Recorded food safety messages are available 24 hours a day.

Prepared by Drusilla Banks, Extension Specialist Food Science & Nutrition Programming; University of Illinois Extension at Wright College.

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