Food safety during and after a power outage: Keep it or toss it out?

Food safety can be a major concern for people during a power outage. There are several things to do in advance and tips to follow after power is restored.

With the April 2014 Midwest span of spring storms, power outages have become common. Michigan State University Extension advises consumers that food safety can be a major concern for people during an outage, especially when the electric company can’t give you an estimated time for when the power will be back on. The following are suggestions for advanced preparation to help keep food safe in case of a power outage:

  • Make sure your appliances have thermometers; it is the best way to ensure your food is safe in case there is a power outage. Temperatures are considered safe if they are 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower in the refrigerator or zero degree or lower in the freezer.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends the following tips to follow:

  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature.
    • The refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours if it is unopened.
    • A full freezer will keep the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) if the door remains closed.
    • Buy dry or block ice to keep the refrigerator 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 fully-stocked freezer cold for two days.
  • If you plan to eat refrigerated or frozen meat, poultry, fish or eggs while it is still at safe temperatures, it's important that each item is thoroughly cooked to the proper temperature to assure that any foodborne bacteria that may be present is destroyed. However, if at any point the food was above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours or more, discard it.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables with water from a safe source before eating.
  • For infants, try to use prepared, canned baby formula that requires no added water. When using concentrated or powdered formulas, prepare with bottled water if the local water source is potentially contaminated

Once power is restored you will need to determine the safety of your food. Here's how:

  • If an appliance thermometer was kept in the freezer, check the temperature when the power comes back on. If the freezer thermometer reads 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, the food is safe and may be refrozen.
  • If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, check each package of food to determine its safety. You can't rely on appearance or odor. If the food still contains ice crystals or is degrees Fahrenheit or below, it is safe to refreeze or cook.
  • Refrigerated food should be safe as long as the power was out for no more than four hours and the refrigerator door was kept shut. Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs or leftovers) that has been above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours or more.

Keep in mind that perishable food such as meat, poultry, seafood, milk and eggs that are not kept adequately refrigerated or frozen may cause a foodborne illness if consumed, even when they are thoroughly cooked. Following these guidelines can help ensure that no one will become sick from tainted foods.

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