Violent storms can happen quickly and unexpectedly during the summer. Oftentimes, homes can lose power during those storms leaving many people wondering about the safety of refrigerated and frozen foods.
Monitoring food storage temperatures can be especially important during a power outage. At the same time, opening freezer and refrigerator doors should be kept to a minimum. Food safety experts recommend checking food storage temperatures every four hours.
The key temperature is 40 degrees. When the power returns any refrigerated or thawed food that is still lower than 40 degrees is safe to use or to be refrozen. If the temperature has been higher than 40 degrees for more than two hours, the food should be discarded.
Food stored in a freezer that is full or nearly full during a power outage might retain food quality for two to four days. Food stored in a freezer that is one-half or less full might retain quality for one to two days without power. Storing food in an ice chest can be an alternative for a limited time.
In the refrigerator, foods that can spoil quickly include any raw meats; leftovers or mixtures, such as a meat or poultry salad; dairy products, such as cottage cheese; and any egg products.
Raw, chopped meats, such as hamburger, spoil quickly. Pork, fish and poultry also spoil quickly. Dispose of these foods if they have been at 40 degrees or higher for more than two hours.
Hard cheese usually keeps well at room temperature. Other cheeses, such as cream cheese, opened containers of cheese spreads, and cottage cheese spoil quickly so discard if they have been higher than 40 degrees for more than two hours.
Milk spoils quickly without refrigeration. Throw out spoiled milk.
Custard, gravies, creamed foods, chopped meats, poultry, and seafood sandwich fillings spoil quickly when unrefrigerated. They are ideal growing places for organisms that can make you sick. Dispose of these foods if they have warmed to higher than 40 degrees. Spoilage is hard to detect because they might not smell or taste bad.
Being mindful of food quality is important after a power outage. For example, the presence of ice crystals can mean that frozen food is still safe. A thawed or soft spot, an "off" odor, or a leaky package is a signal that food should be discarded.
During a power outage, monitor the temperature of cooked or partially cooked food with a food thermometer. If an outage is brief, you might be able to continue cooking the food to a safe-to-eat temperature, but the familiar advice: "When in doubt, throw it out," is still good advice.
Knowing how to determine if food is safe and how to keep food safe will help minimize the potential loss of food and reduce the risk of foodborne illness during a power outage.
More information on food safety and storage is available at www.fsis.usda.gov. Search for emergency preparedness factsheets. You can also call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-674-6854 with food safety questions.
Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Extension in Washington County.