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Power outages and food safety

Cynthia Ross Cravit
July 17, 2012

What to pitch -- and what to keep -- after an unexpected power outage? Here's a guide to avoid risky eating if you've lost power.

While winter storms can leave us without power, summer storms pack an equal punch. Of the many woes of weather-related power outages, food safety is a big concern no matter the season. How long can refrigerated or frozen items remain safe once the power is off? Here’s a general guideline, according to Canada’s Food Safety Network (FSN).

Food safety 101

To inhibit the growth of bacteria and other microorganisms, the refrigerator temperature should be 4°C (40°F) or below and the freezer should be -18°C (0°F) or below.

A power outage can cause these temperatures to rise above these levels within hours, experts say, causing perishable foods such as meat, poultry, fish, milk and eggs to become unsafe to eat.

If you do lose your power, your refrigerator should keep food at or below 4°C (40°F) for four to six hours, depending on the kitchen temperature, the age of the refrigerator and the number of times the door is opened. Food in a full freezer should remain frozen for 48 hours, and 24 hours if the freezer is half-full.

During an outage, be sure to:

– Make a note of the time the power outage started.

– Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible.

– Use a refrigerator and freezer thermometer to track the temperature. (If you don’t own one, they are readily available at grocery, hardware and other stores that feature kitchen goods.)

– Use bags of ice or gel packs from your freezer to help keep foods cold.

Note: Be cautious when placing foods outside during the winter. Even if the outdoor temperature is cold, food can thaw under the sun’s rays. Use a cooler or closed container and a refrigerator/freezer thermometer to make sure the temperature remains under 4°C (40°F).

Refrigerated foods: What to toss?

Discard all food that has been at temperatures above 4°C (40°F) for more than two hours . These foods include:

– Fresh or leftover meat, poultry, fish, and shellfish

– Deli meats, hot dogs, and bacon

– Eggs, custards, puddings, and cookie dough

– Soft cheeses, low fat cheeses, milk, cream, sour cream or yogurt

– Prepared infant formula and opened baby food

– Fish sauces, hoisin sauce, creamy salad dressings, opened spaghetti sauces

– Cut fruits and vegetables, cooked vegetables, opened canned vegetables and vegetable juices

– Casseroles, soups, stews, gravies, cooked pasta, cooked rice, cooked cereals, pizza

– Cooked leftovers

Note : Commercial mayonnaise, tartar sauce and horseradish should be discarded if it has been above 10°C for over 8 hours .

Refrigerated foods: What to keep?

Foods that can safely be stored above 4°C for a few days include:

– Ketchup, relishes, olives, jams and jellies, mustard, barbecue sauce, soy sauce

– Fruit juices

– Vinegar-based salad dressings

– Bread, rolls, bagels, cakes (without cream or custard), cookies and muffins

– Certain hard cheeses such as cheddar, swiss, parmesan and romano. Also processed cheese

– Butter and margarine

– Whole non-cut fresh fruits and vegetables and mushrooms.

The deal on frozen foods

Food in the freezer can be refrozen so long as the temperature of the freezer remained at 4°C or below. If a thermometer was not kept in the freezer, be sure to check each food package individually. The basic rule is: If it still contains ice crystals it can be refrozen — and if it has thawed, throw it away.

Exceptions include breads, cakes (without cream or custard), cookies, waffles, pancakes, fruits and fruit juices. These items can be refrozen even if they have thawed.

Other tips

Remember that harmful bacteria can multiply in food without causing the food to appear or smell bad. Never taste food to determine its safety. Throw away all food items that look slimy, mouldy or discoloured.

If raw food has leaked in the refrigerator or freezer, first wash the area with hot, soapy water. You can sanitize the surface by using a mixture of 5 mL (1 tsp) unscented chlorine bleach in 750 mL (3 cups) of water (that is safe to drink). Rinse and allow it to dry completely.

Note: If you’ve been alerted that the municipally treated water in your area is unsafe to drink, you can disinfect water by bringing it to a vigorous boil for 1 minute. (For more information, click here.)

But perhaps the most important tip of all: When in doubt, throw it out!

Food Safety Network
Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Health Canada
U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Brad Killer

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