Food storage during an outage: ‘when in doubt, throw it out,’ says the USDA |

Food storage during an outage: ‘when in doubt, throw it out,’ says the USDA

Knowing how to determine if food is safe during a power outage and knowing how to keep it safe will help minimize the potential loss of food and reduce the risk of food poisoning, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Most importantly, perishable foods that have been kept at a temperature above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours should be thrown out. In warmer temperatures, bacteria are more likely to grow and can make a person sick. This could range from a stomach ache or diarrhea to a serious food-borne illness, experts said.

Recent prolonged outages have increased the likelihood of home food supplies going bad, and homeowners should be on alert. With safety a priority, health experts agree: “When in doubt, throw it out.”

A few key rules of thumb are important to bear in mind:

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– Common refrigerated foods that should be discarded if stored in a temperature of 40 degrees or above for more than two hours include meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, soft cheeses, grated cheeses, dairy, soy meat substitutes, pizza, sausage, casseroles, soups, stews, cooked or cut produce and cooked leftovers.

– Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature. Most refrigerators will keep food safely cold for roughly four hours if it is unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) if the door remains closed. Dry or block ice can help keep a 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 full freezer for two days. Plan ahead and know where dry ice and block ice can be bought.

– Coolers can aid in keeping food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours. When a freezer is not full, keep items close together — this helps the food stay cold longer.

– Digital, instant-read food thermometers and appliance thermometers will help determine if food is at safe temperatures. Keep appliance thermometers in the refrigerator and freezer at all times. When the power is out, an appliance thermometer will always indicate the temperature in the refrigerator and freezer no matter how long the power has been out. The refrigerator temperature should be 40 degrees or below; the freezer, zero or lower. If you’re not sure a particular food is cold enough, take its temperature with a food thermometer.

– Keep items on hand that don’t require refrigeration and can be eaten cold or heated on the outdoor grill. Shelf-stable food, boxed or canned milk, water, and canned goods should be part of a planned emergency food supply.

– Have ready-to-use baby formula for infants and pet food. Remember to use these items and replace them from time to time and check expiration dates. Be sure to keep a hand-held can opener for an emergency.

– Keep several gallons of safe drinking water in the freezer. This will help keep food cold and also provide backup in case your water supply is compromised.

– Keep nutrient-dense, non-perishable items on hand for eating: nuts and seeds, dried fruit, whole grain cereal and jarred or canned fruits and vegetables.

Items that are likely to be OK — even when they’ve been stored in a refrigerator over 40 degrees for longer than two hours — include hard cheeses, butter, margarine, many spreads including peanut butter, jelly, relish, ketchup, mustard, Worcestershire, vinegar-based salad dressings, bread and uncut raw vegetables and fruits.

Those who are forced to throw out large quantities of food are encouraged to review their renters’ or homeowners’ insurance policies to see if they cover the cost of spoiled food. Surprisingly, many do.

When it comes to perishable food, health experts say they can’t stress their message enough: if there is any doubt whether a particular food has gone bad, toss it, as it’s just not worth the risk. Additionally, anyone whose immune system is weakened — such as seniors, babies or people undergoing cancer treatment — are at an even greater risk for illness and may require a higher level of caution.

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at or call 530-477-4203.

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