11 Tips for Keeping Food Safe When the Power Goes Out

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A couple of years back, 600 million people in India were without power for two days.  It was not only lights out – but lights out for half of the population. Can you imagine the chaos?

More recently, there have been significant power outages in North America. In late October 2012,  Hurricane Sandy brought high winds and coastal flooding to a large portion of the eastern United States, leaving an estimated 8 million customers without power.  Not quite as bad but serious none-the-less, the ice storms of December 2013 cumulatively left over 1 million people without power.

11 Tips for Keeping Food Safe When the Power Goes Out | Backdoor Survival

When the power goes out (commonly called “grid down”), so do transportation systems, manufacturing systems, communications systems and of course, household systems. And what about those household systems?  The first thing that comes to mind is heating and cooling when the temperate drops to below freezing or the heat swelters to 90 degrees Fahrenheit with 80% humidity.

Personal comfort aside, there is a big issue with our dependence on refrigeration in keeping food safe.  In recent weeks, I have been asked about food safety when the grid is down.  One of the more specific questions has been “what is safe to eat after thawing and being re-frozen following a power outage?”.

I can not say that I am an expert on the subject but I can share some guidelines to follow when the power grid goes down for more than a few hours.

Keeping Food Safe When the Power 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.  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 refrigerator 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.

3.  Place ice cubes in zipper type bags and place them in the freezer.  Later, if the power goes out, keep the freezer door closed.  When the power is restored, leave the freezer door closed long enough for it to go back to its normal, freezing temperature.  If the ice cubes have melted into a bag of solid ice, you will know that everything in the freezer thawed and is likely unsafe.

4.  Have a minimum of a week’s supply of ready-to-eat food that does not require cooking or refrigeration after being opened.

5.  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 four to six hours if the door is kept closed.

6.  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.

7.  The following foods are generally safe to store at room temperature for a few days.  Even if they are normally kept in the refrigerator, they will be safe to consume even if the power is out for 1 or 2 days.

• Butter and margarine
• Hard cheeses (such as Cheddar, Swiss)
• Fresh fruits and vegetables
• Fruit juices
• Opened jars of salad dressing, peanut butter, jelly, relish, barbecue sauce
• Mustard, ketchup, and olives

8.  When the power comes back, check the temperature inside of your refrigerator and freezer. Discard perishable food that has been above 40°F for two hours or more.  Definitely discard the following:

• Raw or cooked meat, poultry, seafood
• Meat-topped pizza, lunchmeat
• Casseroles, stews or soups
• Milk/cream, yogurt, soft cheese (such as feta and Brie)
• Mayonnaise, tartar sauce, or creamy dressings
• Cooked pasta, potato, rice and salads prepared from these foods
• Fresh eggs, egg substitutes

9.  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.

10.  Frozen foods that have been partially defrosted during an outage should be cooked or reheated to a minimum temperature of 160 degrees.

11.  When in doubt, dump it.  And never, ever taste food to determine whether it is safe to eat.

Food Safety Reference Charts

There are a number of food safety charts available at the FoodSafety.gov website.  These charts can be used as a guide when determining whether your food is safe to eat following an outage.  For some people, the charts may be on the conservative side – this is the US Government, after all – so there may be some individual instances where food may be safer for a period longer than shown, depending on how cold your refrigerator or freezer was to begin with.

You need to be mindful of your own comfort level.  In my my own household, if the temperature goes above 36-38°F for any period of time – even 30 minutes – out it goes.  You mileage may vary.

What to Eat When the Power Goes Out?

This is where your preps come into play.  Canned goods, packaged goods and other items that do not require cooking are obvious. But beyond that, having a simple rocket stove or other outdoor cooking device can save the day.  Even if the only thing you do is boil water, having some way to heat your soup or activate some of your freeze-dried food will be a godsend.  This is especially true if the power is out for days which calls attention to the question:  do you have at least three days worth of food that does not require heating or cooking of any type?

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The Final Word

Those who live off grid, including those who live in RVs and boats, typically rely on solar or generator power for their AC needs.  Many also rely on propane to fuel their refrigerators an freezers.

For the rest of us, our reliance on electricity to keep our food safe is huge. Sure you can by insurance to cover any food loses following an outage, but like the gift that keeps on giving, a claim will likely result in increased premiums for years to come and who wants that?

The best time to prepare for an off grid emergency is now, while the power is still on. A 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.

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
Gaye

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Bargain Bin: Below are some items that will help you prepare for a power outage.

Taylor Freezer-Refrigerator Thermometer:  This no-frills thermometer is the one I use.  It is less than $6 with free shipping.  At this price, there really is no reason not to monitor the temperature inside you refrigeration appliances.  You will be surprised at how quickly the temperature rises when the door is left open for just a few minutes.

Wireless Refrigerator/Freezer Thermometer: A wireless thermometer will allow you to easily monitor freezer and refrigerator temperatures without opening the doors.

Ultra Bright LED Lantern – Collapsible:  This popular lantern uses 30 different LEDS and is powered by 3 AA batteries, including rechargeables.  Instead of a switch, you turn it on by extending the lantern from its collapsed condition.  With a lifetime warranty and over 1,350 close to perfect ratings, I can see why this is popular.  I love mine!

Coleman Candle Lantern: When the lights go out, there is nothing like a Coleman.  They last forever because spare parts are always available.  A candle lantern will not give out the bright light of say, a propane or kerosene lantern.  On the other hand, candles are like to be available when other fuels are not.  About $16.

Solo Stove:  I was so impressed that I renamed this the “Amazing Little Solo Stove”.  The price is $69.99 but for a small amount more, you can get a version that also burns alcohol.

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Comments

11 Tips for Keeping Food Safe When the Power Goes Out — 22 Comments

  1. So here is what I do…

    I have some 2-Liter bottles of soda pop (I don’t drink soda but after parties and such, I take them home) I rinse them out, clean them, and then add water to them. Just plain tap water. I fill to a few inches below the top, and then freeze them.

    If the power goes out, I keep them in my freezer (to use as an ice chest) and put some in my fridge as well.

    And, when they melt, there is water (for me if I filter it first as I try not to drink tap water) or for my animals (I have a dog and a cat).

    We have our fridge full — if you don’t have two liter bottles, then the gallon sized ziplock baggies will do as well. Just fill them about 1/2 full of water and then lay flat. They freeze flat and are easy to stick in small places (you can do this with quart size, too, to get more in there).

    If I need more space in my freezer due to a big trip to the grocery store, I just remove some of my frozen water… then when space comes available again I put them back in.

    Hope this tip helps! I live in Panama and our power goes out frequently!

  2. Is the Solo stove safe for inside use? In cold and blizzard weather, I sure don’t want to be outside but we need to eat. Warm food would help.

    • You can purchase an alcohol burner for the Solo Stove (about $20) that is safe to use indoors. The only way I would use a wood burning rocket stove (such as a Solo Stove) indoors is to place it in a wood burning fireplace and even then, only in a dire emergency with a window open.

  3. I am old and forgetful and I may have know this in the past, but, putting a bag of ice cubes in the freezer, to see if they melt is a wonderful idea.

  4. Please consider changing this line so that people understand this check is to be performed after power is RESTORED and has been stable for at least a minute…not the moment the power goes out. It may seem obvious to some, but just to be sure…

    “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.”

    And, the reason that one needs to wait a bit is because power may be only restored for a moment. Another problem or another overload (as people start turning back on lights, heaters, etc) could cause the power to again go out soon after being initially restored.

    • John – Good point. I did say that in #3 but it do need to be clarified a bit more. Thanks.

      From #3. “When the power is restored, leave the freezer door closed long enough for it to go back to its normal, freezing temperature.”

  5. Question: what’s the best way to power your house (fridge, furnace, etc) should the power go down for an extended period (3 days – week)? Is a generator the best option or is there something else out there?

    • To the best of my knowledge, a generator is the only way to go. To save fuel, you can run the genset in spurts – say 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours late in the day before going to bed. That is what we did when we had a boat.

  6. I appreciate the fact that you say that you are no expert. Neither am I, but I question some of your advice.

    You wrote about when power was restored, “Discard perishable food that has been above 40°F for two hours or more.”

    Food served for meals routinely sits for two hours or more without posing a problem before it is cooked. Many people take out frozen food from a freezer, including raw meat, leave it to defrost on the kitchen counter, and then cook it when they return home at night. I would fully expect that the food gets to a temperature above 40 degrees during the day, and sometimes well before two hours when it is cooked.

    Am I missing something?

    About eggs, I have seen experiments where eggs have been stored without refrigeration for weeks and were fine to eat. I have heard that in England that eggs are sold in supermarkets where they are not even kept in refrigeration.

    Do you disagree?

    Do you have information that says that even consuming a tiny bit of a suspected food source after a power failure as a test before proceeding to eat a larger amount is dangerous?

    • Ed,

      I have personally ended up in the hospital after consuming spoiled food )from a restaurant) so I am very conservative in my own practices. In addition, these recommendations are consistent with recommendations from the foodsafety.gov web site. Here is what I said:

      “For some people, the charts may be on the conservative side – this is the US Government, after all – so there may be some individual instances where food may be safer for a period longer than shown, depending on how cold your refrigerator or freezer was to begin with.”

      Unwashed eggs can be kept unrefrigerated for months due to their natural protective coating. Commercially sold eggs have been washed and have this coating removed and are thus not safe when kept at room temperature for long periods.

      Finally, keep in mind that this discussion is about perishable foods and lists the worst offenders.

      By the way, being the hospital after consuming presumably safe food is no fun at all. I would prefer to waste food than to get sick.

  7. All of the information you supplied is very useful, but for me the top tips for keeping food safe when the power goes out are:

    1) buy a generator big enough to power your fridge(s) and freezer(s)
    2) buy extra fuel for the generator (minimum several days worth)
    3) test the generator regularly, rotate the fuel, maintain the generator regularly, etc.
    4) start up the generator if the power has been out more than a half hour or so (starting a generator seems to be almost magical, amazing how many times the power has come back on within a few minutes of starting up the generator 🙂
    5) if it looks like the power is going to be out longer than your fuel supply will last and you can’t get out to get more fuel you have several options:
    5a) set up a schedule for running the generator (you don’t have to run it 24/7, just enough to keep everything under the approved temperatures) this can stretch the time period considerably.
    5b) Set up your propane stove and pressure canner and have a canning party.
    5c) if it’s a cold winter outside and you’ve run out of fuel for the generator put the food in coolers or bins in the snow banks in the shade.

    But I have a fridge and two freezers chock full of stuff that would be hard to replace and I have enough cash to buy a generator and the fuel, YMMV.

  8. In “One Second After,” if I recall it correctly, a barbecue restaurant owner was holding an outdoor barbecue and was giving away the meat to the public because his refrigeration was lost. A wiser and more prudent choice would have been to take the meat home and to begin making beef jerky for himself and his family to use in the coming months.

    I understand about the problem with people getting food poisoning after eating tainted food at restaurants, but since the subject here is survival, to urge everyone to throw away considerable amounts of food after a loss of power may be encouraging them to throw away the very food that could save their lives. Eating the food out of the freezer first could allow them to save canned goods and such for use later.

    Your food poisoning incident no doubt involved eating all or most of the tainted food at the restaurant. What I asked about involved testing a small amount in order to determine if the food was safe, and then consuming more later if there were no consequences. If the food was seriously tainted, I would expect that within a couple of hours, one’s intestinal tract would be sending messages loud and clear that were the equivalent of “Danger, Will Robinson!” and that this warning would keep a person from eating more of the food and. as a result, becoming seriously ill in the way you describe.

    And, about the eggs, you say that the washing of the eggs makes them unsafe when kept for “long periods.” Tests on the internet that I have read about have shown that eggs purchased in supermarkets can last far longer without refrigeration than most people think. Again, in a survival situation, those eggs could be an essential source of protein and other nutrients, and wasting them would be a serious loss.

    The bottom line here is that there is a light year of difference between what it is prudent to do in a situation where one’s very survival is threatened, say, after an EMP attack, and what one should do after a lightning strike from a summer thunderstorm that results in downed electrical wires for a day or so.

    • some forms of food poisoning can take up to 48 hours to cause symptoms; it varies according to the person and the strain of bacteria. also, ingesting a small amount of a contaminant might not cause symptoms, yet eating more of it could make you very sick. so i don’t think that tasting food would be a safe way of avoiding food poisoning. i know some animals use that method, but it doesn’t always work for them either, and they have more protective digestive systems than we do.

  9. Cooked meats will last longer than raw meats. We lost power for 5 days in Tampa due to storms and my raw frozen meats went out to the dump but my cooked meats were still safe to eat. The smell test is the best way to test meats. I wash off any green stuff and can still eat the meats. I spent many years in 3rd world countries and most do not have our ways of storing food . All meats should be cooked well done if you have doubts.

  10. Organic, unwashed eggs will (and should be) okay for several days, even a week outside of the refrigerator. Almost all commercial eggs are washed (i.e. grocery store eggs) – which means they will not survive outside of the fridge. This is because washing removes the bloom or cuticle. The bloom seals the porous shell holes, preventing bacteria to enter it.

  11. I have a dozen chickens and in the summer I will get about 10 eggs a day. I cant eat that many eggs. Advice from the US Gov (back in the 30’s) says to coat the eggs with mineral oil and keep them in a cool place and they should be good for 6 months. I coat my chicken’s eggs with mineral oil, even though I don’t wash off the “bloom”, store them in the basement and I have eggs all winter when the chickens don’t lay.
    PS. It hasn’t killed me yet.

  12. Gaye: I live in the bush and power outages are frequent, especially in the winter. I have a generator that I park in the entry doorway & drag it outside when the grid goes down. The best part is NO EXTENSION CORDS. I purchased a GenerLink and had an electrician install it at the hydro mast that comes into the house. The electrician scheduled the installation with the hydro company, took care of all the paperwork and passed the installation. NO MORE LONG EXTENSIONS. All I have to do is plug the heavy duty connecting cable to the GenerLink and generator, then follow the instruction manual. No carbon monoxide, no cold drafts and when the power comes back on (if the generator is running, no power feedback into the hydro system) I just turn off the generator. I can run the whole house & this winter being a little on the cool side, the furnace runs just fine. Power outages in the summer, no problem. This system is safe, easy for people to use and not expose anyone to risk of unsafe gases from combustion or ruined food. I’ve told several friends who have rural retreats & all the feedback has been very positive.

  13. If you are away from home and the utilities go off you might not know if, when and for how long your freezer was off.
    Take a small paper cup, fill 3/4 with water, and freeze. Then lay a penny on top and replace in freezer. If your freezer is off for any length of time, you will know. The water will melt, the penny will fall to the bottom of the cup. Even if the freezer comes back on while you were gone you still know things had melted…penny now frozen in the bottom of the cup. Will be a warning that the food might be spoiled and then refrozen.

    • clever idea. another one is to put about 3-4″ of water in an empty water bottle and freeze it. then, when the power goes off or you leave the house for a while, turn the bottle on its side. if the ice is still in the bottom of the bottle, the temperature has stayed low. if the ice is on the side, the power was off for quite a while.

  14. Eggs are safe to eat if they get above 40. You just need to cook them above the 165.
    On submarines we would store eggs in the bilge temps would vary from 50-70 and the eggs would keep for months

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