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What’s safe to eat after a power outage?

Freezer full of food
Freezer full of food
Published: Jun. 16, 2022 at 3:58 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 16, 2022 at 7:01 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Some parts of Northeast Wisconsin could be without power for days. But people who didn’t have power restored within hours already need to consider whether to throw out food in their refrigerator and freezer.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says after four hours, perishable foods in a refrigerator should be discarded, and only some foods in a freezer that remained shut can be refrozen.

  • Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. The refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours, and a full freezer will keep the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if half full) if the doors remain closed.
  • Use ice (dry or block ice, or ice cubes) and frozen containers of water or gel packs to keep your refrigerator and freezer as cold as possible.

Never assume a food is safe based on its smell -- and the USDA says you should never taste food to determine if it’s safe. When in doubt, throw it out.

Refrigerators

The USDA has a food safety chart for dealing with power outages. This is a partial list of what’s safe to keep:

Hard cheeses, processed cheese and grated cheeses in a can or jar are safe to keep (rule of thumb: if it came in a container that wasn’t refrigerated at the supermarket). Butter and margarine are also safe for longer periods of time.

Condiments like opened mayonnaise, tartar sauce and horseradish are only safe up to 8 hours as long as their temperature does not exceed 50 degrees, then they should be discarded. Jellies, olives, pickles, ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, taco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce and hoisin sauces are safe to keep. Vinegar-based dressings are OK to keep but not creamy dressings.

Keep pre-cooked, heat-to-eat breakfast foods like bagels, waffles and pancakes; also, breads, rolls, cakes, muffins, tortillas and fruit pies.

Cut vegetables should be discarded but uncut fresh vegetables are OK to keep, along with fresh mushrooms, herbs and spices.

Freezers

Click here for a full list that includes freezer foods which can be refrozen and which should be thrown out.

In a nutshell: If your freezer went above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for 6 hours or more, the only things that are safe to keep are hard cheeses, breads and bread dough, pie crusts, rolls, muffins, cakes (unless they have a custard filling, in which case throw them out), heat-to-eat breakfast foods listed above, flour, cornmeal, and nuts.

Fruits and juices can be refrozen -- but if they develop a slimy layer, yeasty smell or mold, toss them out.

When Power is Restored

Before eating any food after a power outage, check the temperatures inside your refrigerator and freezer.

  • If the power was out for no more than 4 hours, refrigerated food should be safe as long as the doors were kept closed. When the power comes back on, check the temperature in the refrigerator or of the food. Perishable foods (such as meat, poultry, seafood, milk, eggs, or leftovers) with temperatures that are 45°F or below (measured with a food thermometer) should be safe but cook and consume them as soon as possible. Discard any perishable food that has been at temperatures above 40°F for 4 hours or more.
  • If the freezer thermometer reads 40°F or below, food is safe and may be refrozen. If you did not have a thermometer in the freezer, check each package to determine its safety; you can’t rely on appearance or odor. If the food still contains ice crystals or is 40°F or below, it is safe to refreeze or cook.
  • Be aware that perishable foods that are not kept adequately refrigerated or frozen may cause food poisoning if eaten, even after they are thoroughly cooked.

Homeowners insurance might reimburse you for the cost of food that spoiled due to a power outage. Allstate says check with your insurance agent, but be aware that there might be coverage limits and it could also fall under your deductible -- meaning you still have to pay out-of-pocket even if it’s covered, up to a certain cost.

Insurance companies also recommend asking your utility if it will reimburse what you paid for either the food or your insurance deductible, though American Family Insurance says that might only apply if the utility is at fault for the outage, not Mother Nature.

Document the food items, take photos of the food as proof of what you’re claiming, and include grocery store receipts if you’re claiming high-ticket food items.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Allstate, American Family Insurance

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