How Long Does Food Last In The Refrigerator When The Power Goes Out?
October 30, 2012
(Susan Saunders photo)
With Hurricane Sandy hitting the East Coast, we are reminded that losing power during a storm is a big threat that we should all be prepared for. The ice cream is the first thing "saved" in our house during a power outage, but what is the real shelf life for foods in your refridgerator or freezer?
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service prepared a fact sheet
for keeping food safe during an emergency power outage. "Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature" says the USDA, but the refrigerator will only keep food safely cold for about four hours if unopened.
A full freezer will hold the temperature for about 48 hours if full, 24 hours if half full, according to the USDA. And don't worry, if the temperature in the thermometer in the freezer reads 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, the food is safe and can be refrozen.
Q. A snowstorm knocked down the power lines, can I put the food from the refrigerator and freezer out in the snow?
A. No, frozen food can thaw if it is exposed to the sun's rays even when the temperature is very cold. Refrigerated food may become too warm and foodborne bacteria could grow. The outside temperature could vary hour by hour and the temperature outside will not protect refrigerated and frozen food. Additionally, perishable items could be exposed to unsanitary conditions or to animals. Animals may harbor bacteria or disease; never consume food that has come in contact with an animal. Rather than putting the food outside, consider taking advantage of the cold temperatures by making ice. Fill buckets, empty milk cartons or cans with water and leave them outside to freeze. Then put the homemade ice in your refrigerator, freezer, or coolers.
Q. May I refreeze the food in the freezer if it thawed or partially thawed?
A. Yes, the food may be safely refrozen if the food still contains ice crystals or is at 40 °F or below. You will have to evaluate each item separately. Be sure to discard any items in either the freezer or the refrigerator that have come into contact with raw meat juices. Partial thawing and refreezing may reduce the quality of some food, but the food will remain safe to eat. See the attached charts for specific recommendations.
Be prepared for an emergency by having 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. Make sure you have ready-to-use baby formula for infants and pet food. Remember to use these items and replace them from time to time. Be sure to keep a hand-held can opener for an emergency.
Consider what you can do ahead of time to store your food safely in an emergency. If you live in a location that could be affected by a flood, plan your food storage on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water. Coolers are a great help for keeping food cold if the power will be out for more than 4 hours—have a couple on hand along with frozen gel packs. When your freezer is not full, keep items close together—this helps the food stay cold longer.
Digital, dial, or instant-read food thermometers and appliance thermometers will help you know if the 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 °F or below; the freezer, 0 °F or lower. If you’re not sure a particular food is cold enough, take its temperature with a food thermometer.
--Susan Saunders 10/30/12