9 Tips for Food Safety When the Grid Goes Down
Recently, 600 million people in India were without power for two days. According to news sources, the suspected cause was one of simple supply and demand: more people wanted power than the Indian infrastructure was able to deliver. It was not only lights out – but lights out for half of the population. Even I have a problem wrapping my brain around a blackout of that magnitude.
It is important to note that in India, for many, electrical power is a luxury, where according to a recent census, one third of the households do not have enough to power even light a single light bulb. Still, when the grid went down so did transportation systems, manufacturing systems, communications systems and of course, household systems.
And what about those household systems? The first thing that may come to mind is air conditioning in a climate where there is 80% humidity in 90 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. Sweltering heat can be uncomfortable, yes, but what about refrigeration? How do you keep food safe when the temperature is 90 and the power grid is down for longer than a few hours?
Keeping Food Safe When the Electricity Goes Out
1. Place appliance thermometers in both the refrigerator and the freezer. After a power outage, check the temperature to determine whether your food is still safe to consume. Safe temperatures are 40°F or lower in the refrigerator, 0°F or lower in the freezer.
2. Try to keep your freezer as full as possible. Fill empty juice or milk jugs with water and keep them in the freezer (unless you need the space for food, of course). If the power grid goes down, you can use these frozen blocks of ice to maintain the cold temperature in your refrigeration and/or to keep the temperature in your freezer colder for a longer period. A full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours but only 24 hours if half-full.
In addition, if there are warnings of a severe storm on the way, freeze additional water in one-quart plastic storage bags. They are small enough to fit in around the food in the refrigerator and freezer to help keep food cold and won’t make a mess when the ice melts.
3. Have a minimum of a week’s supply of ready-to-eat food that does not require cooking or refrigeration after being opened.
4. Do not open the refrigerator and freezer doors unnecessarily. Take out what you need quickly then close the doors and keep them closed. A refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours if the door is kept closed.
5. Have coolers on hand that can be used to store the refrigerated foods that you think you will need for the short term. Use the frozen jugs of ice from your freezer to keep the food in your cooler cold. This will mitigate having to open and close the refrigerator door unnecessarily.
6. When the power comes back, check the the temperature inside of your refrigerator and freezer. Discard perishable food that has been above 40°F for two hours or more.
7. Check each item separately. Throw out any food that has an unusual odor, color, or texture, or feels warm to the touch. With frozen food, check for ice crystals. The food in your freezer that partially or completely thawed may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is 40°F or below.
8. Frozen foods that have been partially defrosted during an outage should be cooked or reheated to a minimum temperature of 160 degrees.
9. When in doubt, dump it. And never, ever taste food to determine whether it is safe to eat.
Food Safety Reference Charts
The following charts (which can also be found at the FoodSafety.gov website, can be used as a guide when determining whether your food is safe to eat following an outage. Note, however that these are best case times and temperatures and no fudging allowed. Furthermore, you need to decide on your own comfort level but in my own household, if the temperature goes above 36-38 degrees F for any period of time – even 30 minutes – out it goes.
Food Safety – Refrigerated Foods
Food Categories Specific Foods Held above 40 °F for over 2 hours
MEAT, POULTRY, SEAFOOD Raw or leftover cooked meat, poultry, fish, or seafood; soy meat substitutes Discard
Thawing meat or poultry Discard
Salads: Meat, tuna, shrimp, chicken, or egg salad Discard
Gravy, stuffing, broth Discard
Lunchmeats, hot dogs, bacon, sausage, dried beef Discard
Pizza – with any topping Discard
Canned hams labeled “Keep Refrigerated” Discard
Canned meats and fish, opened Discard
Casseroles, soups, stews Discard
CHEESE Soft Cheeses: blue/bleu, Roquefort, Brie, Camembert, cottage, cream, Edam, Monterey Jack, ricotta, mozzarella, Muenster, Neufchatel, queso blanco, queso fresco Discard
Hard Cheeses: Cheddar, Colby, Swiss, Parmesan, provolone, Romano Safe
Processed Cheeses Safe
Shredded Cheeses Discard
Low-fat Cheeses Discard
Grated Parmesan, Romano, or combination (in can or jar) Safe
DAIRY Milk, cream, sour cream, buttermilk, evaporated milk, yogurt, eggnog, soy milk Discard
Butter, margarine Safe
Baby formula, opened Discard
EGGS Fresh eggs, hard-cooked in shell, egg dishes, egg products Discard
Custards and puddings, quiche Discard
FRUITS Fresh fruits, cut Discard
Fruit juices, opened Safe
Canned fruits, opened Safe
Fresh fruits, coconut, raisins, dried fruits, candied fruits, dates Safe
SAUCES, SPREADS, JAMS Opened mayonnaise, tartar sauce, horseradish Discard if above 50 °F for over 8 hours.
Peanut butter Safe
Jelly, relish, taco sauce, mustard, catsup, olives, pickles Safe
Worcestershire, soy, barbecue, hoisin sauces Safe
Fish sauces, oyster sauce Discard
Opened vinegar-based dressings Safe
Opened creamy-based dressings Discard
Spaghetti sauce, opened jar Discard
BREAD, CAKES, COOKIES, PASTA, GRAINS Bread, rolls, cakes, muffins, quick breads, tortillas Safe
Refrigerator biscuits, rolls, cookie dough Discard
Cooked pasta, rice, potatoes Discard
Pasta salads with mayonnaise or vinaigrette Discard
Fresh pasta Discard
Breakfast foods –waffles, pancakes, bagels Safe
PIES, PASTRY Pastries, cream filled Discard
Pies – custard, cheese filled, or chiffon; quiche Discard
Pies, fruit Safe
VEGETABLES Fresh mushrooms, herbs, spices Safe
Greens, pre-cut, pre-washed, packaged Discard
Vegetables, raw Safe
Vegetables, cooked; tofu Discard
Vegetable juice, opened Discard
Baked potatoes Discard
Commercial garlic in oil Discard
Potato salad Discard
Casseroles, soups, stews Discard
Food Safety – Frozen Foods
Food Categories Specific Foods Still contains ice crystals and feels as cold as if refrigerated Thawed and held above 40 °F for over 2 hours
MEAT, POULTRY, SEAFOOD Beef, veal, lamb, pork, and ground meats Refreeze Discard
Poultry and ground poultry Refreeze Discard
Variety meats (liver, kidney, heart, chitterlings) Refreeze Discard
Casseroles, stews, soups Refreeze Discard
Fish, shellfish, breaded seafood products Refreeze. However, there will be some texture and flavor loss. Discard
DAIRY Milk Refreeze. May lose some texture. Discard
Eggs (out of shell) and egg products Refreeze Discard
Ice cream, frozen yogurt Discard Discard
Cheese (soft and semi-soft) Refreeze. May lose some texture. Discard
Hard cheeses Refreeze Refreeze
Shredded cheeses Refreeze Discard
Casseroles containing milk, cream, eggs, soft cheeses Refreeze Discard
Cheesecake Refreeze Discard
FRUITS Juices Refreeze Refreeze. Discard if mold, yeasty smell, or sliminess develops.
Home or commercially packaged Refreeze. Will change texture and flavor. Refreeze. Discard if mold, yeasty smell, or sliminess develops.
VEGETABLES Juices Refreeze Discard after held above 40 °F for 6 hours.
Home or commercially packaged or blanched Refreeze. May suffer texture and flavor loss. Discard after held above 40 °F for 6 hours.
BREADS, PASTRIES Breads, rolls, muffins, cakes (without custard fillings) Refreeze Refreeze
Cakes, pies, pastries with custard or cheese filling Refreeze Discard
Pie crusts, commercial and homemade bread dough Refreeze. Some quality loss may occur. Refreeze. Quality loss is considerable.
OTHER Casseroles – pasta, rice based Refreeze Discard
Flour, cornmeal, nuts Refreeze Refreeze
Breakfast items –waffles, pancakes, bagels Refreeze Refreeze
Frozen meal, entree, specialty items (pizza, sausage and biscuit, meat pie, convenience foods) Refreeze Discard
The Final Word
Unlike in India, most Western countries have sufficient electricity to supply every household with the power they need to hook up to the grid. On the other hand, only those who purposely live off grid and rely on solar or generator power know how precious this resource is – especially when it comes to food safety and keeping things cold.
The best time to prepare for an off-grid emergency is now, while the power is still on. The low-cost investment in freezer and refrigerator thermometers plus taking the time to store some frozen jugs of water may make the difference between having a full freezer and refrigerator of food or a dumpster full of smelly, spoiled and unsafe food.
9 Tips for Food Safety When the Grid Goes Down | Pakalert Press