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Extension: How to keep food safe when the power goes out

By Barbara Worley 

The economic impact to our agricultural economy and food supply is massive following the recent hurricanes that devastated much of the Southeast. As Georgians are recovering from the storms, the question of what to do with food in refrigerators and freezers is posed since power outages were widespread. People are hesitant to throw away food after the power has been out because they are throwing away money. However, the risks of foodborne illness from eating food that has not been kept at the proper temperatures is grave.

Time and temperature is most important for food safety to make sure you do not get foodborne illness.  When the power is on, always keep your refrigerator at or below 40 degrees and freezer at or below zero degrees. When the power does go out, keep the doors to the refrigerator and freezer shut as much as possible. The refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about four hours if left unopened.  A full freezer will hold the temperature for 48 hours (24 hours if half full).  Dry (carbonic gas) or block ice can also be used to keep your refrigerator or freezer cold.

With spring storms, hurricanes in summer and fall, and snow and ice in the winter, the likelihood of an outage always lingers. Being prepared before an emergency strikes will ensure you and your family have what you need on hand rather than rushing to the store right before the disaster occurs and fighting the crowds for milk and bread. Preparation is also key to saving as much food as possible.  

Consider how to store your food safely before an emergency occurs. If you live in flood prone areas, store food on shelves above areas that may be exposed to contaminated water. Keep coolers and frozen gel packs on hand for situations when the power may be out for more than four hours. When your freezer is not full, keep items close together to help the food stay cold longer. Keep like items together – meats should be close together; vegetables, etc. Also, when you know a power failure may occur, run your freezer at colder temperatures; the colder the food, the more slowly it thaws.

Although the temperature outside may be below freezing, never store your food outdoors during a power outage. Frozen food can thaw in the sun’s rays even when the temperature is below freezing.  Food can become too warm and bacteria can grow from the variation in outside temperature from hour to hour. Perishable items can be exposed to unsanitary conditions or animals. Rather than putting food outside, take advantage of the freezing weather to make ice to use in your refrigerator, freezer or coolers.  

Once power is restored, evaluating each item must be done to ensure its safety. Never rely on appearance or odor. Having appliance thermometers in both your refrigerator and freezer, and a meat thermometer for taking the temperature of food items individually, is necessary for evaluation.  If the appliance thermometer stored in the freezer reads zero degrees or below, the food is safe and may be refrozen. Always discard any items in the freezer or refrigerator that have encountered raw meat juices.  Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and leftovers) that have been above 40 degrees for two hours. Partial thawing and refreezing may reduce the quality and integrity of some food, but not inhibit the safety of the food if the temperature is safe.  

For more information on food safety, nutrition and healthy living, contact us at 770-887-2418 or visit us online at  Forsyth County Extension is supported by The University of Georgia, Forsyth County Government, Forsyth County Board of Education, and United Way of Forsyth County.

Barbara Worley is the Family and Consumer Sciences Agent for the UGA Extension.