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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

Food safety concerns during a power outage

STILLWATER, Okla. – Extreme weather is as much a part of Oklahoma as the waving wheat and the wind coming right behind the rain. Tornadoes and scorching temperatures are not at all unusual, and neither is frigid cold weather.

Extreme winter weather can often bring with it power outages. While keeping warm is likely the top priority for residents, food safety also is a concern for those without electricity.

Living in Oklahoma, dealing with the aftermath of winter storms is part of life, said Barbara Brown, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension food specialist.

“In the event of a power outage, the basic guide for food safety of frozen food is whether or not the food still contains ice crystals,” Brown said. “A full freezer should keep for about 48 hours. A half-full freezer is good for about 24 hours. One way to extend this time is by filling the empty space in the freezer with newspaper or blankets.”

If, following a power outage, you discover food that has thawed and no longer has ice crystals, simply throw it away. Brown said if you notice blood from meat that has thawed during the power outage, advanced thawing has occurred and those foods also should be thrown out.

“For food still containing ice crystals, it would be a good idea to mark each package with an X or label as refrozen to indicate these items should be eaten first and as soon as possible,” she said.

Foods in the refrigerator should be kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. During a power outage, foods will remain safe to eat for about four hours. Once perishable foods have been above 40 degrees for more than two hours they are no longer safe to eat. This includes meats of any sort, including lunch meat; eggs, whether raw or hard-cooked; dairy products, specifically liquid and creamy dairy products such as milk, cream cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream and yogurt; soft and shredded cheeses; opened, creamy salad dressing; and leftover stews, casseroles, soups and other leftover cooked foods.

Some foods can be kept at room temperature for a few days, including butter or margarine, fruit juices, jelly, relish, ketchup, barbecue sauce, pickles, baked goods, hard cheeses and processed cheeses.

A good way to know the temperature of foods is to keep an appliance thermometer in both the refrigerator and the freezer. In the event of a power outage, consumers will know if the temperature in the refrigerator or freezer drops below a safe level after a few hours.

“If your freezer is not full when the power fails, quickly group packages of food together so they can help keep each other cold,” she said. “When you do that, be sure to separate meat and poultry so they are below other foods. That way, if they begin to thaw, their juices won’t drip onto ready-to-eat foods.”

Brown recommends keeping your freezer full to maximize storage. If you routinely have empty space in the freezer, fill clean juice bottles or milk containers with water and store them in the freezer. These blocks of ice can buy a person several extra hours of cold storage in the event of a power outage.

“It’s much better to be safe than sorry when it comes to salvaging food items following a weather emergency,” Brown said. “In most cases, the power is usually restored within a few hours. However, if the outage lasts several days, be prepared to toss everything. The best rule of thumb is ‘when in doubt, throw it out.’”

For additional food safety information, please contact your local OSU Cooperative Extension county office.

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Trisha Gedon
Communications Specialist
Agricultural Communications Services
Oklahoma State University
136 Agriculture North
Stillwater, OK  74078
405-744-3625 (phone)
405-744-5739 (fax)
trisha.gedon@okstate.edu

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078
405.744.5000