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Chow Line: Food safety during a power outage

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Q: I’ve got a fridge full of food and our power went out for several hours due to severe storms. Is there any food that can be saved, or do I have to throw everything out of our fridge due to spoilage?

A: It’s that time of year when severe weather can leave consumers without power for a few minutes to multiple days, in some instances. Rounds of severe weather and extreme heat have already impacted many consumers nationwide this spring, with thousands experiencing widespread power outages throughout the country.

It’s incredibly frustrating to think you must discard groceries that you’ve just purchased due to a power outage. Understanding the basics of food safety and how perishable foods are impacted when the temperature is 40º F or more can help you decide if your food is still safe.

One of the biggest factors in deciding whether the foods in your household will spoil during a power outage is the duration of the power loss. Generally speaking, perishable foods that have been in temperatures above 40º for two hours or more will need to be discarded to avoid the potential for food borne illnesses, said Sanja Ilic, food safety state specialist, Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).

“This is because food that isn’t maintained at proper temperatures can enter the ‘danger zone,’ a range of temperatures between 40º and 140º at which bacteria grows most rapidly,” she said.

If your power goes out, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. If not opened, a refrigerator without power will keep food cold for about four hours. A half-full freezer will hold its temperature for about 24 hours, and for 48 hours if the freezer is full, according to the USDA.

Always keep a thermometer in the refrigerator so you know the precise inside air temperature, said Kate Shumaker, an OSU Extension educator and registered dietitian.

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“You can also keep several ice cubes in a zipper bag or small container in the freezer as a way to monitor the temperature,” she said. “If the ice cubes have melted, the temperature was above 32º.”

Once the power is back on, check your food to make sure it is safe to eat, making sure to check each item separately.

According to http://foodsafety.gov/, here is the list of perishable foods you’d need to discard if they’ve been at 40º or higher for two hours or more:

Meat, poultry and seafood products

Soft cheeses and shredded cheeses

Milk, cream, yogurt and other dairy products

Opened baby formula

Eggs and egg products

Dough and cooked pasta

Cooked or cut produce

FoodSafety.gov says the following perishable foods are generally okay to keep after they’ve been held at 40º or higher for more than two hours:

Hard cheeses such as cheddar, colby, Swiss, Parmesan, provolone and Romano

Grated Parmesan, Romano or a combination of both in a can or a jar

Butter and margarine

Opened fruit juices

Opened, canned fruits

Jelly, relish, taco sauce, mustard, ketchup, olives and pickles

Worcestershire, soy, barbecue and hoisin sauces

Peanut butter

Opened, vinegar-based dressings

Breads, rolls, cakes, muffins, quick breads and tortillas

Breakfast foods such as waffles, pancakes and bagels

Fruit pies

Fresh mushrooms, herbs and spices

Uncut, raw vegetables and fruits

Another safety rule of thumb is to throw away any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture, or feels warm to the touch, the USDA advises. You should also check any of your frozen foods for ice crystals. The food in your freezer that partially or completely thawed may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40º or below.

“Some foods that might have completely thawed, such as raw meat, you might not want to refreeze due to a decrease in quality,” Shumaker said. “These products could be cooked first and then frozen in their cooked form – such as ground beef crumbles or chicken pieces.”

If your home was flooded, it’s important that you throw away any food that may have come into contact with floodwater. That includes cartons of milk, juice or eggs and any raw vegetables and fruits. In fact, any foods in your home that aren’t in a waterproof container that came into contact with floodwater need to be thrown out.

Floodwater can seep into and contaminate foods packaged in plastic wrap or cardboard and in containers with screw-on caps, snap lids and pull tops, according to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

“Remember, when in doubt about the safety of the food item, throw it out. Never taste the food to decide if it is safe to eat,” Shumaker said.

This column was originally reviewed by Sanja Ilic, specialist in food safety for OSU Extension, and Kate Shumaker, an OSU Extension educator and registered dietitian.

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