Tips to keep food safe during power outages
URBANA, IL -- A power outage can happen at any time. High winds, thunderstorms, and tornadoes wreak havoc on power lines. Recent power outages have generated conversations about food safety.
“It is difficult to prepare for any disaster emergency,” says Drusilla Banks, a nutrition and wellness educator with University of Illinois Extension.
“But a little knowledge can save money and reduce the risk of illness. Families need to know how to protect chilled and frozen foods during the next power outage because it will happen again.”
As a rule, food in the refrigerator should be safe as long as power is out no more than four hours, keeping appliance doors closed as much as possible. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns that individuals should never taste food to determine its safety.
“You cannot rely on appearance or odor to determine whether food is safe,” Banks says. “Discard any foods exposed to raw meat juices and dripping.”
University of Illinois Extension recommends the following tips to keep food safe during a power outage.
Check the time of the power outage and make a notation. It is important to know exactly how long you have been without power.
Keep an appliance thermometer in both the refrigerator and freezer. Make sure the refrigerator temperature is at 40 degrees F or below and the freezer at 0 degrees F or below. Built-in digital thermometers may lose function.
Keep the freezer full. Fill empty spaces with frozen plastic jugs of water, bags of ice, or gel packs. A full freezer acts as an insulator, delaying defrost. As an added benefit, it is less expensive to run a full freezer.
Find out where the nearest dry ice and block ice can be purchased, and record phone numbers and addresses.
Learn what to save, what to toss.
Resist the temptation to open the refrigerator/freezer doors to check the food. Food in most full, freestanding freezers will be safe for about two days, with half-full freezers for about one day.
If the freezer is not full, quickly group packages together so they form an "igloo" protecting each other.
In freezers, food in the front, on the door, or in small, thin packages will defrost faster than large, thick items or food in the back or bottom of the unit. Now is not the time to be frugal; these foods may be a total loss. Discard any perishable foods (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and leftovers) that have been above 40 degrees F for over two hours.
If food has started to thaw, evaluate each item separately to see what you can safely keep. 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 excessive quality loss. Prepared foods, vegetables, and fruits may suffer greater quality loss. Fruits and fruit juices can be refrozen with minimal quality loss. It is safe to re-freeze these foods but do not expect the flavor and texture to be the same.
When in doubt, throw it out.
Banks cautions that 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,” she explains. “Onset time depends on which bacteria and how much you ate. Research has also shown some foodborne illnesses can lead to more serious, long-term complications such as reactive arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome.”
Do not rely on the appearance or odor of a food to determine safety. Bacteria that cause foodborne illness (food poisoning) can multiply rapidly on perishable foods that have been between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F for more than two hours. Never taste food to decide on safety.
At the end of the day, Banks advises, “When in doubt, it is usually best to throw it out.”
For a detailed food chart to help evaluate the safety of each food item, visit the USDA https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/refridg_food.html. Print a copy for reference.