Recently, 600 million people in India were without power for two days. According to news sources, the suspected cause was one of simple supply and demand: more people wanted power than the Indian infrastructure was able to deliver. It was not only lights out – but lights out for half of the population. Even I have a problem wrapping my brain around a blackout of that magnitude.
It is important to note that in India, for many, electrical power is a luxury, where according to a recent census, one third of the households do not have enough to power even light a single light bulb. Still, when the grid went down so did transportation systems, manufacturing systems, communications systems and of course, household systems.
And what about those household systems? The first thing that may come to mind is air conditioning in a climate where there is 80% humidity in 90 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. Sweltering heat can be uncomfortable, yes, but what about refrigeration? How do you keep food safe when the temperature is 90 and the power grid is down for longer than a few hours?
Keeping Food Safe When the Electricity Goes Out
1. Place appliance thermometers in both the refrigerator and the freezer. After a power outage, check the temperature to determine whether your food is still safe to consume. Safe temperatures are 40°F or lower in the refrigerator, 0°F or lower in the freezer.
2. Try to keep your freezer as full as possible. Fill empty juice or milk jugs with water and keep them in the freezer (unless you need the space for food, of course). If the power grid goes down, you can use these frozen blocks of ice to maintain the cold temperature in your refrigeration and/or to keep the temperature in your freezer colder for a longer period. A full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours but only 24 hours if half-full.
In addition, if there are warnings of a severe storm on the way, freeze additional water in one-quart plastic storage bags. They are small enough to fit in around the food in the refrigerator and freezer to help keep food cold and won’t make a mess when the ice melts.
3. Have a minimum of a week’s supply of ready-to-eat food that does not require cooking or refrigeration after being opened.
4. Do not open the refrigerator and freezer doors unnecessarily. Take out what you need quickly then close the doors and keep them closed. A refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours if the door is kept closed.
5. Have coolers on hand that can be used to store the refrigerated foods that you think you will need for the short term. Use the frozen jugs of ice from your freezer to keep the food in your cooler cold. This will mitigate having to open and close the refrigerator door unnecessarily.
6. When the power comes back, check the the temperature inside of your refrigerator and freezer. Discard perishable food that has been above 40°F for two hours or more.
7. Check each item separately. Throw out any food that has an unusual odor, color, or texture, or feels warm to the touch. With frozen food, check 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 40°F or below.
8. Frozen foods that have been partially defrosted during an outage should be cooked or reheated to a minimum temperature of 160 degrees.
9. When in doubt, dump it. And never, ever taste food to determine whether it is safe to eat.
Food Safety Reference Charts
The following charts (which can also be found at the FoodSafety.gov website, can be used as a guide when determining whether your food is safe to eat following an outage. Note, however that these are best case times and temperatures and no fudging allowed. Furthermore, you need to decide on your own comfort level but in my own household, if the temperature goes above 36-38 degrees F for any period of time – even 30 minutes – out it goes.
|Food Safety - Refrigerated Foods|
|Food Categories||Specific Foods||Held above 40 °F for over 2 hours|
|MEAT, POULTRY, SEAFOOD||Raw or leftover cooked meat, poultry, fish, or seafood; soy meat substitutes||Discard|
|Thawing meat or poultry||Discard|
|Salads: Meat, tuna, shrimp, chicken, or egg salad||Discard|
|Gravy, stuffing, broth||Discard|
|Lunchmeats, hot dogs, bacon, sausage, dried beef||Discard|
|Pizza – with any topping||Discard|
|Canned hams labeled “Keep Refrigerated”||Discard|
|Canned meats and fish, opened||Discard|
|Casseroles, soups, stews||Discard|
|CHEESE||Soft Cheeses: blue/bleu, Roquefort, Brie, Camembert, cottage, cream, Edam, Monterey Jack, ricotta, mozzarella, Muenster, Neufchatel, queso blanco, queso fresco||Discard|
|Hard Cheeses: Cheddar, Colby, Swiss, Parmesan, provolone, Romano||Safe|
|Grated Parmesan, Romano, or combination (in can or jar)||Safe|
|DAIRY||Milk, cream, sour cream, buttermilk, evaporated milk, yogurt, eggnog, soy milk||Discard|
|Baby formula, opened||Discard|
|EGGS||Fresh eggs, hard-cooked in shell, egg dishes, egg products||Discard|
|Custards and puddings, quiche||Discard|
|FRUITS||Fresh fruits, cut||Discard|
|Fruit juices, opened||Safe|
|Canned fruits, opened||Safe|
|Fresh fruits, coconut, raisins, dried fruits, candied fruits, dates||Safe|
|SAUCES, SPREADS, JAMS||Opened mayonnaise, tartar sauce, horseradish||Discard if above 50 °F for over 8 hours.|
|Jelly, relish, taco sauce, mustard, catsup, olives, pickles||Safe|
|Worcestershire, soy, barbecue, hoisin sauces||Safe|
|Fish sauces, oyster sauce||Discard|
|Opened vinegar-based dressings||Safe|
|Opened creamy-based dressings||Discard|
|Spaghetti sauce, opened jar||Discard|
|BREAD, CAKES, COOKIES, PASTA, GRAINS||Bread, rolls, cakes, muffins, quick breads, tortillas||Safe|
|Refrigerator biscuits, rolls, cookie dough||Discard|
|Cooked pasta, rice, potatoes||Discard|
|Pasta salads with mayonnaise or vinaigrette||Discard|
|Breakfast foods –waffles, pancakes, bagels||Safe|
|PIES, PASTRY||Pastries, cream filled||Discard|
|Pies – custard, cheese filled, or chiffon; quiche||Discard|
|VEGETABLES||Fresh mushrooms, herbs, spices||Safe|
|Greens, pre-cut, pre-washed, packaged||Discard|
|Vegetables, cooked; tofu||Discard|
|Vegetable juice, opened||Discard|
|Commercial garlic in oil||Discard|
|Casseroles, soups, stews||Discard|
Food Safety - Frozen Foods
|Food Categories||Specific Foods||Still contains ice crystals and feels as cold as if refrigerated||Thawed and held above 40 °F for over 2 hours|
|MEAT, POULTRY, SEAFOOD||Beef, veal, lamb, pork, and ground meats||Refreeze||Discard|
|Poultry and ground poultry||Refreeze||Discard|
|Variety meats (liver, kidney, heart, chitterlings)||Refreeze||Discard|
|Casseroles, stews, soups||Refreeze||Discard|
|Fish, shellfish, breaded seafood products||Refreeze. However, there will be some texture and flavor loss.||Discard|
|DAIRY||Milk||Refreeze. May lose some texture.||Discard|
|Eggs (out of shell) and egg products||Refreeze||Discard|
|Ice cream, frozen yogurt||Discard||Discard|
|Cheese (soft and semi-soft)||Refreeze. May lose some texture.||Discard|
|Casseroles containing milk, cream, eggs, soft cheeses||Refreeze||Discard|
|FRUITS||Juices||Refreeze||Refreeze. Discard if mold, yeasty smell, or sliminess develops.|
|Home or commercially packaged||Refreeze. Will change texture and flavor.||Refreeze. Discard if mold, yeasty smell, or sliminess develops.|
|VEGETABLES||Juices||Refreeze||Discard after held above 40 °F for 6 hours.|
|Home or commercially packaged or blanched||Refreeze. May suffer texture and flavor loss.||Discard after held above 40 °F for 6 hours.|
|BREADS, PASTRIES||Breads, rolls, muffins, cakes (without custard fillings)||Refreeze||Refreeze|
|Cakes, pies, pastries with custard or cheese filling||Refreeze||Discard|
|Pie crusts, commercial and homemade bread dough||Refreeze. Some quality loss may occur.||Refreeze. Quality loss is considerable.|
|OTHER||Casseroles – pasta, rice based||Refreeze||Discard|
|Flour, cornmeal, nuts||Refreeze||Refreeze|
|Breakfast items –waffles, pancakes, bagels||Refreeze||Refreeze|
|Frozen meal, entree, specialty items (pizza, sausage and biscuit, meat pie, convenience foods)||Refreeze||Discard|
The Final Word
Unlike in India, most Western countries have sufficient electricity to supply every household with the power they need to hook up to the grid. On the other hand, only those who purposely live off grid and rely on solar or generator power know how precious this resource is – especially when it comes to food safety and keeping things cold.
The best time to prepare for an off-grid emergency is now, while the power is still on. The low-cost investment in freezer and refrigerator thermometers plus taking the time to store some frozen jugs of water may make the difference between having a full freezer and refrigerator of food or a dumpster full of smelly, spoiled and unsafe food.
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