Making Food Safety Decisions After a Power Outage

Making decisions about throwing out food can be very difficult.  No one wants to throw out food that may turn out to be perfectly safe.  But the costs and consequences of a serious foodborne illness may far outweigh the cost of food lost in a power outage.  So, make the decisions wisely, but always err on the side of safety. 

If you are not in the middle of an outage when you read this, be sure to go out and buy a thermometer for your refrigerator and your freezer.  Decisions about the safety of food during a power outage that is shorter in duration are based on the temperature the refrigerator or freezer reached during the outage.  (Basically, did the temperature of the refrigerator or freezer rise above 41 °F?) It may also make sense to have a food thermometer on hand to test the temperature of specific foods if you are unsure of their safety.

The room temperature will have an impact on how long temperatures in the refrigerator or freezer will remain at or below 41 °F.  On a hot summer day when the power outage results in an even hotter kitchen, the temperature will rise in the fridge faster than during a Connecticut winter night, when the kitchen will get colder by the minute!

The bottom line: When in Doubt, Throw it Out!

Food poisoning bacteria cannot be detected by sight, smell or taste and can make food unsafe to eat if held at room temperature for more than four (4) hours. Never taste a food to determine its safety!

Food safety decision guidance:

When the power outage occurs, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible, keeping the cold in. 

  • The refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about 4 hours if it is unopened.
  • The food in the freezer section of a refrigerator/freezer may stay frozen or safely cold for up to 24 hours.  However, there are many factors that will influence that.  How full is the freezer (the fuller, the longer things will stay frozen)?  What types of foods are frozen (larger, denser foods like roasts will stay frozen longer and serve to keep other foods colder longer; while smaller pieces of food, and less dense foods like ice cream or frozen juices or bread, will thaw faster)?  What is the temperature of the room the freezer is in? 
  •  A full chest or upright separate freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full and the door remains closed).  Again, this is influenced somewhat by the temperature of the room and how full the freezer is. .
  • 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 2 days.

Foods from the refrigerator:

Discard refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers, and deli items after 4 hours without power or 2 hours after the temperature rises above 41 °F.  At any time, discard spoiled, moldy food and anything that does not look or smell right.  Check the “Should It Stay or Should It Go” charts below for guidance about specific foods.

Foods from the freezer:

  • Food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 41 °F or below.
  • 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 41 °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.
  • Check the “Should It Stay or Should It Go” charts below for guidance about specific foods.

If the power outage is longer than 4 hours:

  • Continue to keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible.
  • First use perishable food from the refrigerator.
  • Then use food from the freezer.
  • Use your non-perishable foods and staples after using food from the refrigerator and freezer.
  • If it looks like the power outage will continue beyond a day, prepare a cooler with ice for your freezer items. Keep the cooler in a dry, cool (as possible) location.

Using dry ice:

    • Dry ice is very cold (about minus 110 °F), so always use gloves when handling dry ice.  It can cause severe burns.
    • Use 2 ½ to 3 pounds of dry ice per cubic foot of freezer space (50 pounds will keep an 18 cubic foot freezer safe for at least two (2) days). Place ice on each shelf.
    • Wrap the dry ice in newspaper and place on top of and below the shelves.  Do not allow bottles or cans to come in direct contact with the ice, or they may freeze and break as the contents expand. 

Special safety concerns when using dry ice:

Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide.  Do not store dry ice in an airtight container or in an ice chest with the latches locked down. The gas pressure of the sublimating (“melting”) dry ice will build up. Even if the container does not rupture, the force on the lid or top may be enough to cause severe injury. Leave the lid unlatched so that the gas can escape.   Open a window in the room.  Carbon dioxide is heavier than air and will settle in the lowest areas of a room or the freezer. Stand back from the freezer when opening the door.  Allow gas fumes to vent.  Do not lean your head into the freezer when there is dry ice in it. 

 

Making food safety decisions

 

SHOULD IT STAY OR SHOULD IT GO?

 

     Refrigerated Foods

 

When to Save and When to Throw It Out

FOOD

Held above 40 °F

for over 2 hours

MEAT, POULTRY, SEAFOOD
Raw or leftover cooked meat, poultry, fish, or seafood; soy meat substitutes; Canned hams labeled "Keep Refrigerated"


Discard

Meat, tuna, shrimp, chicken, or egg salad

Discard

Gravy, stuffing, broth

Discard

Lunchmeats, hot dogs, bacon, sausage, dried beef

Discard

Pizza – with any topping

Discard

Canned meats and fish, opened

Discard

CHEESE
Soft Cheeses: blue/bleu, Roquefort, Brie, Camembert, cottage, cream, Edam, Monterey Jack, ricotta, mozzarella, Muenster, Neufchatel, queso blanco, queso fresco


Discard

Hard Cheeses: Cheddar, Colby, Swiss, Parmesan, provolone, Romano

Safe

Processed Cheeses

Safe

Grated Parmesan, Romano, or combination (in can or jar)

Safe

DAIRY
Milk, cream, sour cream, buttermilk, evaporated milk, yogurt, eggnog, soy milk


Discard

Butter, margarine

Safe

Baby formula, opened

Discard

EGGS
Fresh eggs, hard-cooked in shell, egg dishes, egg products


Discard

Custards and puddings

Discard

CASSEROLES, SOUPS, STEWS

Discard

FRUITS
Fresh fruits, cut


Discard

Fruit juices, opened

Safe

Canned fruits, opened

Safe

Fresh fruits, coconut, raisins, dried fruits, candied fruits, dates

Safe

SAUCES, SPREADS, JAMS
Opened mayonnaise, tartar sauce, horseradish


Discard if above 50 °F for over 8 hrs.

Peanut butter

Safe

When to Save and When to Throw It Out

Jelly, relish, taco sauce, mustard, catsup, olives, pickles, Worcestershire, soy, Hoisin sauces, barbecue sauce

Safe

Fish sauces (oyster sauce)

Discard

Opened vinegar-based dressings

Safe

Opened creamy-based dressings

Discard

Spaghetti sauce, opened jar

Discard

BREAD, CAKES, COOKIES,PASTA, GRAINS
Bread, rolls, cakes, muffins, quick breads, tortillas


Safe

Refrigerator biscuits, rolls, cookie dough

Discard

Cooked pasta, rice, potatoes, pasta salads

Discard

Pasta salads with mayonnaise or vinaigrette

Discard

Fresh pasta

Discard

Cheesecake

Discard

Breakfast foods –waffles, pancakes, bagels

Safe

PIES, PASTRY
Pastries, pies – custard, cream or cheese filled; quiche; chiffon or meringue pies


Discard

Pies, fruit

Safe

VEGETABLES
Fresh mushrooms, herbs, spices


Safe

Greens, pre-cut, pre-washed, packaged

Discard

Vegetables, raw

Safe

Vegetables, cooked; tofu; baked potatoes; potato salad

Discard

Vegetable juice, opened

Discard

Commercial garlic in oil

Discard

     Frozen Foods

When to Save and When To Throw It Out

FOOD

Still contains ice crystals and feels as cold as if refrigerated

Thawed.
Held above 40 °F for over 2 hours

MEAT, POULTRY, SEAFOOD
Beef, veal, lamb, pork, and ground meats

Poultry and ground poultry; Variety meats (Liver, kidney, heart, chitterlings)


Refreeze


Discard

Casseroles, stews, soups

Refreeze

Discard

Fish, shellfish, breaded seafood products

Refreeze. However, there will be some texture and flavor loss.

Discard

DAIRY
Milk

Refreeze. May lose some texture.


Discard

When to Save and When To Throw It Out

Eggs (out of shell) and egg products

Refreeze

Discard

Ice cream, frozen yogurt

Discard

Discard

Cheese (soft and semi-soft)

Refreeze. May lose some texture.

Discard

Hard cheeses

Refreeze

Refreeze

Casseroles containing dairy products or eggs

Refreeze

Discard

Cheesecake

Refreeze

Discard

FRUITS
Juices


Refreeze


Refreeze. Discard if mold, yeasty smell, or sliminess develops.

Home or commercially packaged

Refreeze. Will change texture and flavor.

Refreeze. Discard if mold, yeasty smell, or sliminess develops.

VEGETABLES
Juices


Refreeze


Discard after held above 40 °F for 6 hours.

Home or commercially packaged or blanched

Refreeze. May suffer texture and flavor loss.

Discard after held above 40 °F for 6 hours.

BREADS, PASTRIES
Breads, rolls, muffins, cakes (without custard fillings)


Refreeze


Refreeze

Cakes, pies, pastries with custard or cheese filling

Refreeze

Discard

Pie crusts, commercial and homemade bread dough

Refreeze. Some quality loss may occur.

Refreeze. Quality loss is considerable.

OTHER
Casseroles – pasta, rice based

Refreeze

Discard

Flour, cornmeal, nuts

Refreeze

Refreeze

Breakfast items –waffles, pancakes, bagels

Refreeze

Refreeze

Frozen meal, entree, specialty items (pizza, sausage and biscuit, meat pie)

Refreeze

Discard

Adapted from USDA FSIS Keeping Food Safe During and Emergency

Do you want to read more about this?

Information from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)

American Red Cross:  a page of preparedness fact sheets for all kinds of disasters

American Red Cross: Prepare Your Home and Family

Louisiana State University Storm Recovery Guide