Power Outage Food Safety

What to do with Foods when the Lights go Out

Used to be we only worried about the lights going out during a major storm. Now, there are both planned power outages (when danger is suspected) and emergency power outages (when emergencies actually strike). This provides uncertainty, especially for those who keep a stockpile of food for rainy days. If a generator is available, the refrigerator is generally the first appliance that is plugged in when necessary. If not, all foods contained within the refrigerator and the freezer are susceptible to spoilage and should be dealt with individually.

Here are some guidelines to help make food decisions in any situation when the power goes out.

power outage food safety

Power Outage Food Safety

Keep Refrigerator Food Safe During a Power Outage

A refrigerator will keep food safe for about 4 hours without any power. In order to ensure safety during this time, the refrigerator door must be kept as closed as possible during the entire time. Remember that all foods requiring refrigeration should not be stored above 40°F for more than 2 hours. [1]

Following are recommendations for what to do if the power is shut off for an extended amount of time.

  1. The first thing to do is call the local power company (if it’s not an already scheduled outage). Most utilities have a line that can be called where, with an address or account number, there is a recording which announces the expected time that power should be restored. If the timeframe is longer than the four hours that a refrigerator can safely keep food, then other measures should be considered.

  2. If you have a cooler and the power is expected to be off for more than four hours, and the freezer contains ice and/or ice packs, then quickly pull some out and use them to store the most critical of food items in the cooler. The most critical food items can be determined from the table below, or in some cases it might just be the most expensive items that are most desirable to save, and in other cases it might be the items that you will be constantly reaching for so that the refrigerator door can remain closed. In any case, try to determine these items before opening the refrigerator door to avoid standing in front of an open fridge and allowing all the cold air to escape while thinking.

  3. Next, fill the freezer with ice and proceed to fill the cooler with everything that made the list. Leave the other items in the fridge until the power is restored.

Once the power is restored, go through the refrigerator and either use or trash any items from this list that are considered questionable. Do NOT taste any questionable items. Remember, when in doubt… throw it out! Finally, head to the freezer while referring to the next section of this post to determine the safety of frozen food items.

REFRIGERATOR CONTENTS:

Food Keep or Toss
Raw Meats, Poultry, or Seafood TOSS
Leftover Meats, Poultry or Seafood TOSS
Deli Meats, Hot Dogs, Bacon, Sausage TOSS
Opened Canned Meats or Seafood TOSS
Tofu, Soy Products TOSS
Salads containing meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and/or mayonnaise TOSS
Gravy, Stuffing, Broth TOSS
Leftovers, Casseroles, Soups, Stews, Pizza TOSS
Soft Cheeses TOSS
Hard Cheese KEEP
Processed Cheese KEEP
Shredded Cheese TOSS
EXCEPT: Keep canned or jarred Grated Parmesan, and/or Romano cheeses.
Milk, Cream, Buttermilk, Opened Evaporated milk, Eggnog, Soy milk TOSS
Yogurt TOSS
Sour Cream, Cottage Cheese, Ricotta TOSS
Butter KEEP
Eggs: fresh, hard boiled, processed, quiche TOSS
Custard, Pudding TOSS
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, Cut Eat or TOSS
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, Un-cut (whole) KEEP
Cooked Vegetables TOSS
Packaged Greens (pre-cut, pre-washed) TOSS
Fresh Herbs KEEP
Mayonnaise – Opened or used in any dip, sauce, dressing or salad TOSS
Creamy Salad Dressings – Opened TOSS
Vinegar Based Salad Dressings – Opened KEEP
Jelly, Jam, Relish, Taco sauce, Mustard, Catsup, Olives, Pickles, Worcestershire sauce, Soy sauce, Barbecue sauce, Hoisin sauce KEEP
Fish sauces, Oyster sauces TOSS
Peanut Butter KEEP
Spaghetti Sauce – Opened TOSS
Cooked Pasta, Rice, Potatoes TOSS
Fresh Pasta TOSS
Bread, Rolls, Cookies, Pies*, Pastries*, Cakes*, Muffins, Tortillas KEEP, *if there is NO custard or cheese filling involved.
If any of these fillings are involved, then TOSS.
Fruit pies can be kept, but custard or cheese pies (including Cheesecake) should be tossed.
Refrigerator Biscuits, Rolls, Cookie Dough TOSS
Garlic in oil TOSS
Dried or Candied Fruits KEEP
Baby Formula – opened TOSS
Adult Nutrition – opened TOSS

Power Outage Food Safety

Keep Freezer Food Safe During a Power Outage

A full freezer, again if the door is kept tightly closed, will keep its contents safe for about 48 hours. However, if the freezer is only half full then the contents can only be fully trusted for about 24 hours. If the freezer is still at 40°F or below and/or ice crystals are still visible on food items, the food may be safely refrozen, although the quality may suffer (depending on the food). Do NOT taste any foods that may be in question, they are not worth the risk! [1]

If items are still frozen, then things are cool (pun intended). If anything has begun to defrost, then move those items to the refrigerator and use them as quickly as possible. This generally means in the next day or two… so, if you can’t use them quickly then it is better to toss them at this point. But, if they have completely defrosted, then proteins will need to be cooked immediately and used immediately or else they should just be tossed immediately for safety reasons.

If power will be out for an extended amount of time a block of dry ice can be used to keep product, if available.

FREEZER CONTENTS:

Food Still cold (contains ice crystals or feels as if refrigerated) Thawed and held above 40°F for more than 2 hours
Meat, Poultry, Seafood – all types Refreeze TOSS
Frozen Meals: Casseroles, Pizza, Meat pies, Sandwiches, Stews, Soups Refreeze TOSS
Leftovers: Casseroles (including pasta & rice based), Soups, Stews, Pizza Refreeze TOSS
Breakfast items: Bagels, Waffles, Pancakes Refreeze Refreeze
Flours, Grains, Cornmeal, Nuts, Coffee Refreeze Refreeze – since these products don’t need to be frozen in the first place, there’s no harm done
Breads, Roll, Pastries*, Cakes*, Cookies, Pies* Refreeze Can be refrozen with possible quality loss.
*NOTE: These can be refrozen if there is NO custard or cheese filling involved. If these fillings are involved, then TOSS.
Pie Crusts and Bread Doughs Refreeze, with some quality loss These can be refrozen, but will for sure experience considerable quality loss.
Ice cream, Frozen Yogurt, Gelato, Sherbert Enjoy an immediate milkshake or TOSS TOSS
Cheese, soft or shredded Refreeze, but may experience loss of texture and/or quality TOSS
Cheese, hard Refreeze Refreeze, but may experience loss of texture and/or quality
Fruits and Fruit Juices Refreeze, but may experience loss of texture and/or quality Can be refrozen, BUT discard if any mold, yeasty smell, or sliminess develops
Milk Refreeze, but may experience loss of texture and/or quality TOSS
Vegetables and Vegetable Juices Refreeze, but may experience loss of texture and/or quality TOSS, but can be held above 40°F for 6 hours
Eggs Refreeze TOSS
Cheesecake Refreeze TOSS

NOTE: Any food items that have been refrozen should be used before new items that are placed into the freezer, so move them to the front when new items are frozen.

Power Outage Food Safety

Additional Info

For information on thawing foods, see our safe thawing methods post.

Get more information on refreezing fish before deciding to do so.

To find out which condiments actually need refrigeration see our condiment refrigeration page.

Another occasion to consider what foods are left in the fridge and freezer is when leaving on vacation.

To find out how long other foods are good for, please visit the Dairy, Drinks, Fruits, Grains, Proteins, Vegetables and Other sections of Eat By Date or use the search function below.

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