Learn how to protect your refrigerated and frozen goods.

By Kelly Vaughan
November 13, 2020
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organized refrigerator
Credit: NEAT Method Philadelphia

A power outage can impact our ability to work from home, charge electronics, and stay safe at home. If you don't own a generator, one of the biggest concerns during a power outage is how you'll keep perishable food cold. "A refrigerator is going to keep cold foods at a safe temperature for about four hours," says Meredith Carothers, technical information specialist for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA. "If a freezer is half full, it will keep food frozen for about 24 hours. If it's completely full, it will keep food frozen for about 48 hours." Ahead, we're sharing smart tips for keeping perishable food cold during a power outage.

Transfer to a Cooler

If you know the outage will last less than four hours, it's safe to just leave the food in the refrigerator. Otherwise, you should transfer everything to a large cooler tightly packed with ice and cold food, which will help to maintain an even, chilly temperature. Use enough ice to keep food products below 40°F (place an appliance thermometer in the cooler to accurately monitor the temperature). Replace the ice as soon as it starts to melt to ensure that the cooler stays as cold as possible—grocery stores and gas stations are usually well-stocked with bagged ice.

"If you put the frozen foods in a cooler, it won't necessarily keep the foods frozen per se, but it will at least keep them at a safe, cold temperature until the power comes back on," says Carothers. Even if the food partially thaws, you can put it back in the freezer once the power comes back on, but the quality may not be top-notch.

Common Mistakes People Make During a Power Outage

People assume that if their refrigerator still feels cold even after one or two days, the food inside must still be safe to eat, but that's not necessarily true. "People think that cooked foods such as leftovers are still safe, but they're not. Raw meat, poultry, dairy, certain condiments [anything that needs to stay refrigerated once opened], cheese, and leftovers are not safe to consume once they reach above 40°F," says Carothers.

It's also a good practice to keep your refrigerator and freezer closed during those first four hours in order to trap the cold air in. As soon as warm air enters the appliance, it can start to bring the internal temperature down, causing food to spoil more quickly.

Signs Perishable Food Has Gone Bad

There are two different types of bacteria to keep in mind, says Carothers. "There's foodborne illness-causing bacteria and there's spoilage bacteria. Spoilage bacteria is going to produce those tell-tale signs that food has gone bad such as a bad smell, color change, or slimy texture. Foodborne illness bacteria could be present but there's no way to tell that it exists. When the temperature gets above 40°F, foodborne illness bacteria can multiply and the product can ultimately become unsafe," she explains. If your power comes back in six or seven hours, certain food such as eggs or butter may still feel cold but they will have reached a temperature higher than 40°F, which means they're no longer safe to use. This is why it's so important to follow the time and temperature recommendations to avoid foodborne illness bacteria.

Never taste food to determine if it is safe to eat. Carothers says if you're questioning whether or not your food is still good, follow the age-old saying: "When in doubt, throw it out."

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