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Use caution when refrigerator loses power

When storms knock out the power, what’s the best way to handle refrigerated or frozen foods?
Err on the cautious side. When in doubt, throw the food out.
“Food can be very expensive to throw away but not as costly as food-borne illnesses, which can cause lifelong health effects as well as death,” said Joyce McGarry, a food safety educator with Michigan State University. “If any food is suspected to be contaminated, it is not worth the risk, especially for young children, seniors and those with compromised immune systems.”
Electrical interruptions are unpredictable. Causes include, severe weather, equipment failure, damage from wildlife and power-line scrapes with tree limbs, among other things. Disruptions can extend from minutes to months, and many foods spoil rapidly without refrigeration.
“Animal products and cooked plant items are the most problematic from a safety standpoint,” said Sue Snider, a professor of Animal and Food Sciences at the University of Delaware. “Recommendations are not to let these items stay at room temperature for more than two hours.”
That doesn’t mean you can’t ease food losses. Buy a small generator or portable solar panels to provide temporary power.
Separate your disaster planning into three steps: preparation, measures to take during an outage and things to do once power has been restored.
Be ready for power outages by keeping freezers full, freezing water containers to fill in the empty spaces. Those containers of water can also be used for drinking if needed, McGarry said. “Keep coolers on hand and buy freezer packs, and keep them frozen for use in the coolers,” she said.
As for food, keep a supply of dried foods (beef jerky, crackers, dried fruit, powdered milk, cereal), canned foods (make sure to have a manual can opener) and high-energy foods (granola bars, protein bars). “Rotate the inventory every six months,” she said.
“Keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer at all times,” McGarry said. “That will let you know if the food is being stored at the right temperatures.” Refrigerator temperatures should be at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, and freezer temperatures at 0 or below, she said.
A refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours if it’s unopened. If you move items into the freezer, it will last 24 to 28 hours, McGarry said.
Quickly check food temperature and condition before it refreezes, otherwise you might not be able to determine its safety, Snider said.
“You may safely refreeze most foods if they still contain ice crystals or if they have been kept cold (40 degrees or less) and have been thawed no more than 24 to 48 hours,” Snider said.
Do not rely on appearance or odor, and never taste food to determine its safety, McGarry said.
“Some foods may look and smell fine but if they have been warm too long, they may contain food poisoning bacteria that could make you sick,” she said.
For more about food safety emergencies caused by power outages, see this University of Delaware College of Agriculture & Natural Resources fact sheet:


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