Spoiler alert: How safe is your food after a power outage?

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Steve Peters

Last week’s wind and rain storm left many Vermonters without power for several days. I was lucky to be without for just a few hours. But no matter how long or how short a time the power goes out for, one of our concerns is often about our food. What do you do with it? And is it still safe to eat?

Having to potentially toss out a whole fridge and freezer-worth of groceries is not an easy loss to swallow, and no one wants to go that route if it’s not entirely necessary. Although my power was back before I had to worry about the fridge, it wasn’t until the next day that I realized my chest freezer had never kicked back on. I wasn’t entirely sure what to do at that point, so I did some research.

I found a few good tips for starters. First, is to remember 40 degrees. We don’t want food to sit above 40 degrees and enter into the danger zone. When food is left in the danger zone (between 40 and 140 degrees), it can quickly grow bacteria that can lead to food-borne illness. If your fridge or freezer gets above 40 degrees, that’s a problem. And if that’s the case, you’ll need to evaluate foods on an individual basis.

Without power, a full fridge should keep below 40 degrees for about four hours, while a full freezer should be safe for a couple of days or more. The best way to be sure, though, is to get yourself some inexpensive digital thermometers and keep one in your fridge and one in your freezer. Of course, keeping the fridge and freezer doors shut while the power is off will maximize the amount of time you have. And interestingly, a full fridge or freezer helps maintain the temperature longer.

If you’re not sure about the temperature of the fridge or freezer, you can take the temperature of individual food items, especially meat. If frozen food started to thaw but still has ice crystals and is below 40 degrees, you can refreeze it without a problem. However, the quality of the frozen food may not be as great, but it’s still better than having to throw it away. If meat has been at 40 degrees or above for two hours or less, your best bet is to cook it immediately. Speaking of meat, it’s always good practice to keep meat in the bottom of the fridge or freezer — well sealed if in the freezer or on a tray if in the fridge — so that potential meat juices don’t run off and contaminate other foods.

After a power outage, you can determine the quality of food by looking at it closely for any signs of mold, and smelling it to see if anything seems off. But you can’t necessarily determine safety and you should never taste a food to determine if it is still good. Instead, use a guide such as the one found at foodsafety.gov.

According to the federal food safety information you’ll find, there are some clear guidelines for determining whether or not to keep food items after a power outage. If food has been above 40 degrees for over two hours, that’s when they believe you should make specific evaluations. Any meat, poultry or seafood should be discarded. Hard cheeses, processed cheeses, and grated Parmesan and Romano are safe, but other cheeses should go. Dairy products, aside from butter, should go, as well as eggs, egg-based dishes, and any pastries with cream or cheese in them.

Raw fruits and vegetables seem to be fine to keep, but if cooked or you have leftovers with cooked fruits or vegetables, they should be tossed out. Baked items, like muffins, bread and cakes, are fine to keep, but cooked grains, such as pasta and rice, are no longer good.

That’s just a quick overview. Certainly do additional research and visit foodsafety.gov for more specifics. Better yet, print out their chart and tape it to the inside of one of your kitchen cabinets. Who knows if you’ll have internet access the next time the power is out.

I found a few more useful tips to help manage your perishable foods in the next outage.

  • If you think the power may go out, freeze foods, such as leftovers, in advance. That way, they have a better chance of keeping below 40 degrees for longer.
  • If you have the space, freeze containers of water and make ice cubes to help keep the freezer cold and possibly use in a cooler.
  • Have a cooler on hand. That way you can transfer food into it in case the fridge is out for more than four hours.
  • Don’t try storing food outside in the snow. The temperature is inconsistent throughout the day, especially if there’s sun. However, you can freeze water outside if it’s cold enough and use that to keep food cold.

If you’re ever in doubt when it comes to the safety of the food, your best bet is to eat your losses and throw it out. It’s just not worth getting sick over. But the best time to plan for the next outage is now, not waiting for the next instance. With more-extreme weather patterns becoming the norm and winter almost upon us, it’s likely just a matter of when.

Steve Peters

Steve Peters is a cook, gardener and baker living in Rutland.

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