After a Power Outage: Important USDA Food Safety Guidelines and Tips

updated May 12, 2022
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Hurricane Sandy tore a path through the Northeast yesterday, and it’s not over. If you’re one of the millions left without power, we a) sincerely hope you get it back soon, and that in the meantime you stay safe and dry, and b) think it’s a good time to refresh on basic food safety guidelines after you’ve had a power outage. What’s safe to keep and what should you toss?

Steps to Follow to Prepare for a Weather Emergency:
  • Use appliance thermometers in your refrigerator and freezer to help determine if food is safe during power outages. Refrigerator temperature should be 40° F or lower and the freezer should be 0° F or lower.
  • Freeze refrigerated items such as leftovers, fresh meat, and poultry that you may not need immediately–this helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.
  • Freeze containers of water for ice to help keep food cold in freezer, refrigerator, or coolers in case of power outage. You can also use melted ice for drinking water.
  • Purchase or make ice cubes and freeze gel packs in advance.
  • Plan ahead and know where to purchase block ice and dry ice, just in case.
  • Have coolers on hand to keep the refrigerator food cold in case the power is out for more than 4 hours

If the Power Goes Out:

  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible.
  • A refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours if you keep the door closed.
  • A full freezer will keep its temperature for about 48 hours (24 hours if half-full)
  • If the power is out for an extended period of time, buy dry or block ice to keep the refrigerator as cold as possible. Fifty pounds of dry ice should keep a fully-stocked 18-cubic-feet freezer cold for two days.

When the Power Is Restored:

  • Check the temperature in the refrigerator and freezer. If the thermometer reads 40° F or below, the food is safe.
  • If no thermometer was used in the freezer, check each package. If food still contains ice crystals, it’s safe.
  • Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items) that have been kept in a refrigerator or freezer above 40° F for two hours or more.
  • Never taste food to determine its safety!
  • When in Doubt, throw it Out!

For up-to-the-minute food safety information, you can follow the USDA’s Twitter feed @USDAFoodSafety. For tweets about food recalls and other weather-related food safety issues in your particular state, follow @XX_FSISAlert, replacing XX with your state or territory’s postal abbreviation.

For more on what foods to keep and what to toss after a power outage, check out these posts on The Kitchn:

• Power Outages: What To Keep and What To Toss
• Power Outages: How To Tell If Your Freezer Defrosted
Power Out? A Guide to Refrigerator Safety When You Don’t Have Electricity
• Hunker Down! The Kitchn’s Best Hurricane and Winter Storm Advice

(Image: Emma Christensen)