If a hurricane knocks out power, is your refrigerated food still safe to eat?
2017’s Hurricane Irma knocked out power for more than 6.7 million electricity customers in Florida, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management. Power outages during and after severe weather can leave many wondering if the food stored in their refrigerator is still safe to eat.
If a hurricane or other major storm causes a power outage in your home, knowing how to handle refrigerated or frozen food can protect your family from getting seriously ill.
A refrigerator set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below will keep most food safe for consumption. Pathogenic bacteria, which result in foodborne illnesses, can rapidly grow if food is stored in the temperature range of 40 F to 140 F, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Most refrigerators come with built-in thermometers that measure their internal temperature, but if it doesn’t include this feature, the USDA states that consumers can always keep an appliance thermometer in the fridge to monitor the temperature.
Food is still considered safe if, after the power comes back on, the refrigerator’s temperature is still 40 F, according to the USDA.
However, foods held at temperatures above 40 F for more than two hours shouldn’t be eaten.
“If the house reaches over 90 degrees, as it does often in Florida summers, the food left out is only good for one hour,” said Dr. Jacqueline Darna, N.M.D., CEO and medical inventor of NoMo Nausea medical bands. Darna also noted that pregnant women should take special care not to consume unsafe foods during a power outage.
“If the power goes out in a hurricane, try to limit the amount of time you go in and out of the fridge, as this will keep food colder longer,” Darna said.
An unopened refrigerator keeps food cold for about four hours, while a full and half-full freezer maintains the temperature for 48 and 24 hours, respectively, if you keep the door shut, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
If the power is likely to be out for a prolonged period, dry or block ice can help keep the fridge as cold as possible. The FDA states that 50 pounds of dry ice should keep an 18-cubic-foot, fully stocked freezer cold for a couple of days.
Refrigerated or frozen foods like meat, fish, eggs or poultry should be fine to eat as long as they were at a safe temperature when you planned to consume them. The FDA recommends that each food item is thoroughly cooked to a safe minimal internal temperature to destroy any foodborne bacteria that could be lurking.
If the food was at any point above 40 F for two or more hours, throw it out.
It’s important to keep in mind that taste testing food for safety is not recommended, as you can’t rely on the way food looks or smells to determine whether it’s okay to consume, according to foodsafety.gov. Remember: When in doubt, throw it out.
Items you should discard after four hours without power include meat, soft cheeses, eggs, leftover foods, deli items, milk, fish and poultry, the USDA states.
“As part of a family preparedness plan, it's essential to have an emergency supply of food, water and other drinks that don't require refrigeration,” said Jack Plaxe, founder and managing director of Kentucky-based Security Consulting Alliance.
“There are many good options for storing foods that don't require refrigeration or cooking including canned goods, jerky, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, peanut butter, protein bars, granola bars and cereals,” Plaxe said. “Drinks that fit into this category include bottled water, sports drinks and single-serving shakes and nutrition.”
Once power is restored, if a thermometer hasn’t been kept in the freezer, experts recommend individually checking each package of food to determine its safety. Food that still contains ice crystals is considered safe to eat.
For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.