Sooner or later, every home has a power outage. The electricity may have gone off during a snowstorm or thunderstorm, or the refrigerator may simply quit working. Whatever the cause, dealing with the food involved when the unit is off requires a knowledge of food safety.

USDA recommendations
Keep the freezer door closed. Keep what cold air you have inside. Don't open the door any more than necessary. You'll be relieved to know that a full freezer will stay at freezing temperatures about two days and a half-full freezer about one day. If your freezer is not full, group packages so they form an "igloo" to protect each other. Place them to one side or on a tray so that if they begin thawing, their juices won't get on other food. And, if you think power will be out for several days, try to find some dry ice (see box below).

Although dry ice can be used in the refrigerator, block ice is better. You can put it in the refrigerator's freezer unit along with your refrigerated perishables such as meat, poultry and dairy items.

Handling dry ice
To locate a distributor of dry ice, look under "ice" or "carbon dioxide" in the phone book. Buy 25 pounds of dry ice to keep a 10 cubic-foot freezer full of food safe three to four days. It will keep food in a half-full freezer safe for two to three days. A full, 18 cubic-foot freezer requires 50 to 100 pounds of dry ice to keep food safe two days and for less than two days in a half-full freezer.

Handle dry ice with caution and in a well-ventilated area. Don't touch it with bare hand; wear gloves or use tongs. Wrap dry ice in brown paper for longer storage. One large piece lasts longer than small ones. The temperature of dry ice is -216 degree Fahrenheit; therefore, it may cause freezer burn on items located near or touching it. Separate dry ice from the food using a piece of cardboard.

Some foods can be kept
The foods in your freezer that partially or completely thaw before power is restored may be safely refrozen if they still contain ice crystals or are 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. You will have to evaluate each item separately. Generally, be very careful with meat and poultry products or any food containing milk, cream, sour cream or soft cheese. When in doubt, throw them out.

Partial thawing and refreezing may reduce the quality of some foods. Raw meats and poultry from the freezer can usually be refrozen without too much quality loss. Prepared foods, vegetables and fruits can normally be refrozen, but there may be some quality loss. Fruit juices can be refrozen safely without much quality loss, but frozen fruit will become mushy.

In general, refrigerated items should be safe as long as power is out no more than four hours. Keep the door closed as much as possible. Discard any perishable foods (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and leftovers) that have been above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours or more, and any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture, or feels warm to the touch.

Keep an appliance thermometer handy
This will remove the guesswork of just how cold the unit is because it will give you the exact temperature. The key to determining the safety of foods in the refrigerator and freezer is knowing how cold they are. The refrigerator temperature should be 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below; the freezer, 0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.

Be prepared for all power outages. If you live in an area where loss of electricity from summer or winter storms is a problem, you can plan ahead to be prepared for the worst.

  • Stock up on shelf-stable foods -- canned goods, juices and "no-freeze" entrees.
  • Plan ahead how you can keep foods cold. Buy some freeze-pak inserts and keep them frozen.
  • Buy a cooler.
  • Freeze water in plastic containers or store bags of ice.
  • Know in advance where you can buy dry and block ice.
  • Develop emergency freezer-sharing plans with friends in another part of town or in a nearby area.

These are rule-of-thumb guides. For the actual handling of specific foods, follow the instructions in the following charts. Be sure to discard any fully cooked items in either the freezer or the refrigerator that have come into contact with raw meat juices. Remember, you can't rely on appearance or odor.

Never taste food to determine its safety! Some foods may look and smell fine, but if they've been at room temperature too long, bacteria that cause foodborne illness can begin to grow very rapidly. Some types will produce toxins that are not destroyed by cooking.

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