February 5, 2020

What to Do with Refrigerated Foods After a Power Outage

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Right before Christmas, some of my relatives lost electricity when the wind knocked out their neighborhood’s power lines. They spent a cold night at home and were worried they would lose all the holiday food in their fridge.

A power outage can occur at any time – heavy thunderstorms, heat wave when the power grid is stretched thin, local electrical repairs, hurricanes, earthquakes etc. A lot of people wonder what to do with the food in the refrigerator when electricity is lost for a period of time.

As soon as you lose power

If you lose electricity, keep the refrigerator and freezer door closed to keep food from spoiling.

Call your power company and get an estimate on when power will be restored. This will give you an idea how long you’ll be out of power. In the meantime the whole family must avoid opening the fridge and freezer.

If it looks like power will not be restored right away, you may have to take some action. Assuming you are not in the middle of a disaster, and are able to go out, pick up some dry ice or bags of ice. The last time my fridge broke down, we placed everything in a cooler and packed the cooler with ice.  I had to learn to live without a fridge for a while but the foods did stay cold.

Another thing families do when they are about to lose their refrigerated foods is to try and cook those foods that are cutting it close. During the hurricanes I have experienced, many residents did exactly that-fire up the barbecue and grill the meats. That’s why you need a backup methods for cooking food in the event of a power outage.

Let’s look at what to do with refrigerated foods after a power outage.

Meats and other perishable foods

Here is a rule of thumb regarding re-freezing meat if you have a power outage: If the meat still has ice crystals, and the fridge temperature stayed below 40 degrees, then it is safe to refreeze.

You may wonder, how would you know what is the temperature in your fridge? You may have to get a thermometer for your refrigerator and freezer.

Another rule of thumb is, if the power was out less than four hours, and the fridge or freezer door was kept closed, then the food would still be safe.

If you have any doubts, it may be best to throw it out. It is not worth getting sick from bad food.

Prepared Foods

According to Foodsafety.gov, it’s best to discard the following foods if they were exposed to temperatures above 40 °F for more than 2 hours:

Meat, tuna, shrimp, chicken, potato, pasta or egg salad
Gravy, stuffing, broth
Lunch meats such as hot dogs, bacon, sausage, dried beef
Pizza (any topping)
Canned hams labeled “Keep Refrigerated”
Canned meats and fish, opened
Casseroles, soups, stews

Cheese

Even if they were held above 40 °F for more than 2 hours, processed cheeses and hard cheeses such as Cheddar, Colby, Swiss, Parmesan, provolone, Romano remain safe to eat.

Soft cheeses such as blue cheese, Roquefort, Brie, Camembert, cottage, cream, Edam, Monterey Jack, ricotta, mozzarella, Muenster, Neufchatel, queso blanco, and queso fresco should be discarded.

Milk

Discard milk, cream, sour cream, buttermilk, evaporated milk, yogurt, eggnog, soy milk if they were kept above 40 °F for more than 2 hours.

Butter can actually last through a power outage due to the salt content.

Eggs and egg products

Discard them to be on the safe side, if they were stored above 40 °F for more than 2 hours. If you want eggs to last longer, try this easy way.

Fruits

Without refrigeration, the shelf life of fruit depends on when the fruit was actually picked, and how ripe it was when you bought it.  Many fruits last a long time without refrigeration:  apples and citrus fruits will last around four to five weeks on the counter.

Ripe pineapples and mangoes must be eaten within 24 hours.

Strawberries and other berries are short-lived without the fridge – eat them as soon as soon as possible, or the following day after the power outage at the latest.

Cut up fruit salads will need to be discarded if they were above 40 °F for more than 2 hours.

Vegetables and herbs

Some vegetables such as celery, broccoli and cauliflower will stay fresh when stored upright in water.

Herbs also store well while sitting upright in water.

Root crops such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, onion, garlic will last one to two months without refrigeration.  Cut onions will need to be used right away or they will get moldy.

Squash such as zucchini will last a week without refrigeration.

Tomatoes (technically a fruit but considered a vegetable for cooking purposes) will last two weeks if they are still green, or about a week at the most if they are already ripe.

Condiments

These condiments remain safe after a power outage:

  • Jelly, relish, taco sauce, mustard, catsup, olives, pickles
  • Worcestershire, soy sauce, barbecue sauce, hoisin sauce
  • Vinegar-based dressings

Discard the following:

  • Opened jar of mayonnaise, horseradish or tartar sauce
  • Opened creamy dressings
  • Spaghetti sauce that has been opened

Breads, rolls and desserts

Keep bread, rolls, cakes, muffins, quick breads, tortillas, bagels, fruit pies.

Toss cheesecake, refrigerator biscuits, rolls, cookie dough, cream-filled pastries, custards.

Can you store freezer food out in the snow?

A lot of people wonder if you lose power in the winter, is it a good idea to store food out in the snow. While it sounds like it makes sense, ,in reality, placing perishable food out in the snow does not guarantee they will be safe to eat.  Temperatures outside rarely remain constant:  food can thaw outside, and the sun may warm up parts of the food causing bacteria to grow.   The food can also come in contact with animals or insects.

Instead, place the food place the food in a cooler and pack it with snow.  Or make your own ice by leaving water bottles outside to freeze and using those to keep your food cold.

Can you test the food to tell if it’s safe?

Unfortunately, you cannot always tell by taste and smell – bacteria may have grown on the food that cannot be detected by taste or smell.  Besides if you taste the food that has already spoiled you may get sick just from tasting it.  Throw out any perishable foods that have been above 40 °F for 2 hours or more.

As much as you may hate wasting food, your health is not worth risking. When in doubt, throw it out!


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11 Comments on What to Do with Refrigerated Foods After a Power Outage

  1. It sometimes happens that a power outage occurs while residents are away from home. When they return, they sometimes have no idea of how long the power was out, or how well their freezer preserved the food.

    One idea I’ve seen mentioned is to freeze water in a container such as a glass or cup, and to put a penny on top of the ice. If the penny is still on top of the ice when it is checked, the freezer contents are “good to go.”

    • Hi Survivorman99, That’s a good idea, keeping a container with ice with a penny on top.
      You’ll know if there was a power outage while you were away. Thanks for the comment.

  2. I keep a glass of frozen water in the freezer with a penny on top of it. Since I’m not always at home, this allows me to see if there’s been a power outage in my absence. If the penny has dissolved into the ice from thawing and re-froze….its a good indicator to use caution on consuming those foods stored.

  3. Eggs: “Discard them to be on the safe side, if they were stored above 40 °F for more than 2 hours.” All I know is that eggs are sold in supermarkets in Britain, France and Italy and they are not refrigerated.

    Milk: “Discard milk, cream, sour cream, buttermilk, evaporated milk, yogurt, eggnog, soy milk if they were kept above 40 °F for more than 2 hours.” How could anyone “back in the day” consume a cow’s milk production every day. I am pretty darn confident that there was no home delivery of ice to the “Little House on the Prairie” and that, even if ice was stored in the winter, keeping the temperature in the ice box below 40 degrees Fahrenheit was not always possible.

    Just sayin’.

    • Hi Survivorman99, European egg processing is different from the U.S. methods. One difference is they don’t wash the bloom off the eggs, therefore eggs retain their natural protective coating and do not require refrigeration. In the U.S., eggs are thoroughly washed and do not retain the protective coatings therefore they must be refrigerated.

      • Yes, I am aware of the difference in European processing, yet, it seems just plain wrong to toss eggs that have been unrefrigerated for 2 hours. Do you have any data to support that position.

        And, I notice that you said nothing in regard to my comment about tossing milk that had been unrefrigerated for 2 hours.

        • Survivorman99, These are more like guidelines rather than hard and fast rules. The individual would have to use their best judgement on whether to keep or toss. I err on the side of “when in doubt, throw it out” but your choices may differ. If it were my decision, I would throw away milk that has been sitting without refrigeration for a couple of hours, but again that’s what my choice would be. Your mileage may vary. Thanks for the comment.

    • If they had a river they could store the milk. They might even have built a spring house. If not they could have turned it into cheese.

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