When the power goes out, whether from an ice storm, brown-out or just by accident, it’s important to know which foods are safe to eat and which are not. Here are some tips on how to safely handle food after an outage.
Once the electricity goes off, a full freezer will hold temperatures for 48 hours. A half-full freezer will hold a freezing temperature for 24 hours. You can extend this time by filling the freezer with newspaper or blankets. A refrigerator can only maintain a safe temperature for around four hours. A refrigerator freezer will only keep things frozen about six hours; after that you may want to think about cooking the meats to either eat or keep in coolers of ice if you can get ice. It is important to only open the freezer or refrigerators doors when absolutely necessary.
When the freezer has been off, the basic guide to determining a food’s safety is whether or not it still contains ice crystals. If it does, the food (except seafood) should be refrozen as quickly as possible. It is a good idea to mark each package with an "X" or label as "Refrozen" to indicate these items should be eaten first and as soon as possible.
If any food has thawed and there are no ice crystals on it, it should be thrown away. If you notice blood from once-frozen meat on neighboring packages or in the bottom of the freezer, advanced thawing has certainly occurred and those foods should also be thrown out.
It is also all right to re-freeze foods if the thermometer in the freezer reads 40 degrees or less. Once food has been above 40 degrees for more than two hours, it should be discarded. This is also true if the power comes back on without realizing power was restored.
Refrigerator temperature should be kept at 40 degrees or lower.
If the power is out for two hours or more, perishable foods in the fridge should be discarded. These foods include:
- Meats of any sort, including fresh meats, lunch meats, open containers/cans of meat or leftovers with meat
- Eggs, whether raw, hard-cooked or in a casserole or other dishes
- Dairy products, specifically liquid and creamy dairy products like milk, cream cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream and yogurt
- Soft cheeses including Brie, Colby, Monterey Jack, ricotta, mozzarella and Muenster
- Shredded cheese should also be discarded
- Opened creamy salad dressings
- Stews, casseroles, soups and other leftover cooked foods like vegetables, tomato sauce and cookie dough
Toss condiments such as opened jars of mayonnaise, tartar sauce and horseradish, if they were above 50 degrees for more than 8 hours.
The following items can be kept at room temperature for a few days:
- Peanut butter
- Butter or margarine
- Fresh or dried fruits
- Open/canned fruit and fruit juices
- Taco sauce
- Barbecue sauce
- Opened vinegar-based dressing
- Raw vegetables
- Baked goods
- Hard cheeses like cheddar, Swiss, parmesan, Romano and provolone
- Processed cheeses
The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service website has a chart on specific foods and recommendations on salvaging or discarding after a power outage. View it at
Keep this in mind when it comes to determining whether or not food is safe – you cannot smell or taste harmful bacteria. If you are not sure how long a food has been above 40 degrees or if you are feeling uncertain about the item, remember the rule: When in doubt, throw it out!
Angela Treadaway is a Regional Extension Agent in Food Safety. For any questions on food safety or preparation of vegetables, contact her at 205-410-3696 or your local county Extension office.