Food Safety During and After a Disaster

Answers to 'Is This Still Good?' and Other Questions

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 18, 2003 (New York) -- Three days after the power went out in the Blackout of 2003, New York City health officials have reported a surge in diarrhea and other suspected food-poisoning cases in emergency rooms throughout the city.

Experts say people shouldn't take chances with their health by tasting food to find out if it's good enough to eat after sitting in a powerless refrigerator for several hours.

Instead, here are some simple, common-sense food-safety tips that can reduce the risk of food poisoning after a blackout or other loss of power.

During a blackout:

  • Keep it closed. Do NOT open the refrigerator or freezer. An unopened refrigerator can keep foods cold enough for several hours. A freezer that is half full will hold for up to 24 hours, and a full freezer for 48 hours.
  • Pack it up. If the loss of power will be for more than two to four hours, pack highly perishable foods, such as milk, dairy products, meats, fish, poultry, eggs, and leftovers, into a cooler surrounded by ice.

After a blackout:

  • Take the temperature. If you don't know how long the power has been out, or if it has been several hours, check the internal temperature of food with a quick-response thermometer as soon as the power comes back on. If the internal temperature of the food in either the fridge or freezer reaches above 40 degrees for more than two hours, toss it.
  • When in doubt, throw it out!
  • Evaluate each food item separately. Never taste food to find out if it's spoiled.
  • Check for ice crystals. After the power has returned and if the freezer temperature is not above 40 degrees, it's OK to refreeze frozen foods that still contain ice crystals and feel cold, such as meats, poultry, fish, cheese, casseroles, and frozen meals.
  • Check foods with limited shelf life. Some foods can be kept safely for a limited period of time without refrigeration or at temperatures above 40 degrees for more than two hours, including butter, margarine, hard or processed cheeses, fruit juices, canned fruits, fresh fruits, peanut butter, jellies, mustard, vinegar-based dressings, breads, non-cheese-filled pastries and pies, cakes, muffins, quick breads, olives, ketchup, herbs, and spices.

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SOURCES: New York City Department of Health. American Red Cross. United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service.
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