How to handle food after a power outage

Using thermometers in your fridge and freezer is a good idea

By Carole Howell

How to handle food after a power outage

We know that after extreme weather causes a power outage, our electric cooperatives are swifter than anyone in restoring our electricity. But we do experience some extended outages of two or three days or more. Unless you have a home generator sized to power your refrigerator and freezer, you face the unhappy prospect that your pricey food supply is now soggy and spoiled.

Sadly, after a long stretch without refrigeration, many of our valuable groceries should simply be introduced to the trashcan.

Salmonella, shigella, and e. coli are just a few of the dangerous bacteria that can grow in food. Some folks find out the hard way that you just can't salvage some foods after they've been without refrigeration. According to WebMD, pregnant women, young children, older adults and people with impaired immune systems are particularly at risk for severe symptoms.

The good news is that some foods can be saved.

According to Ben Chapman, assistant professor and food safety specialist with North Carolina State University, most food-borne pathogens can grow rapidly in food if it's kept in temperatures of more than 41 degrees F.

In general, your risk decreases if your power is off no more than two hours, especially if you don't open the refrigerator door. Chapman strongly advises using thermometers in both your refrigerator and freezer so you can be sure you know the exact temperature before and after the power outage. It's the only way to really know how warm your food has become.

"Most food-borne pathogens don't grow at freezer temps, so frozen food may be safely refrozen if the food still contains ice crystals or is at 41 degrees F. or below," says Chapman. "Check your thermometer and evaluate each item separately. Partial thawing and refreezing may reduce the quality of some food, but the food won't be any riskier if it remains below 41degrees."

As a safeguard, Chapman recommends stocking your freezer with plastic food containers and milk jugs filled with water to keep your temperatures colder longer. Remember that water expands when it freezes, so don't fill containers to the brim.

After a prolonged outage, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends the following:


Raw or leftover cooked meat, poultry, fish or seafood

Soy meat substitutes

Thawing meat or poultry

Meat, tuna, shrimp, chicken or egg salad

Gravy, stuffing, broth

Lunchmeats, hot dogs, bacon, sausage, dried beef

Pizza with any topping

Canned hams labeled "keep refrigerated"

Canned meats and fish, opened

Soft cheeses: blue/bleu, Roquefort, Brie, Camembert, cottage, cream, Edam, Monterey Jack, ricotta, mozzarella, Muenster, Neufchatel, queso blanco, queso fresco

Shredded cheeses

Low fat cheeses

Milk, cream, sour cream, buttermilk, evaporated milk, yogurt, eggnog, soymilk

Baby formula, opened

Fresh eggs, hard-cooked in shell, egg dishes, egg products

Custards and puddings

Casseroles, soups, stews

Fresh fruits, cut-up

Opened mayonnaise, tartar sauce, horseradish (if held over 50 degrees F. for more than eight hours)

Fish sauces (oyster sauce)

Opened creamy-based dressings

Spaghetti sauce, opened jar

Refrigerator biscuits, rolls, cookie dough

Cooked pasta, rice, potatoes

Pasta salads

Fresh pasta with mayonnaise or vinaigrette


Pastries, cream-filled

Pies: custard, cheese-filled, chiffon, quiche

Greens, pre-cut, pre-washed, packaged

Vegetables, cooked

Vegetable juice, opened

Baked potatoes

Commercial garlic in oil

Potato salad


Cheddar, Colby, Swiss, Parmesan, Provolone, Romano

Processed cheeses

Grated Parmesan, Romano, or combination (in can or jar)

Butter and margarine


Fruit juices, opened

Canned fruits, opened

Fresh whole fruits, coconut, raisins, dried fruits,

Candied fruits, dates

Peanut butter

Jelly, relish, taco sauce, mustard, catsup, olives, pickles

Worcestershire, soy, barbecue, Hoisin sauces

Opened vinegar-based dressings

Bread, rolls, cakes, muffins, quick breads, tortillas

Breakfast foods such as waffles, pancakes, bagels

Pies, fruit

Fresh mushrooms, herbs, spices

Vegetables, raw, whole

The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service has a helpful website with food safety information and other advice for preparing for natural disasters. You can even download a workbook for gathering your emergency information and contacts. Visit their website at

About the Author

Carole Howell is an independent writer and amateur muscadine grower in Lincoln County. You can read more about her at

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