Last week, Art Nash told us about the emergency preparedness equipment you need to have available in case of a power outage. This week, I thought I’d take this one step further by talking about food in emergency situations. When we have an outage, it is an inconvenience, but most of us can manage to stay safe and warm somewhere. However, one of the biggest costs is the loss of food that spoils during an extended outage.
The way food is stored and the length of the outage are key to deciding the safety of food. Let’s look at our food storage in three different locations: the refrigerator, freezer and dry storage.
The refrigerator is the most volatile storage. The temperature in the refrigerator is between 35 and 40 degrees. Leave the door closed to keep the cold in for as long as possible. If you think the outage will only be a few hours, consider duct taping the door to keep cold air in and browsers out. If the temperature is below 40 degrees outside, use a cooler and ice to keep items cool and move it outside where it will remain colder longer. Having a thermometer in the fridge that can be moved to the cooler helps you monitor the temperature. Once the temperature goes above 40 degrees for more than four hours, the food should be discarded, particularly leftovers.
A full freezer is a considerable investment in food, time spent preparing the food for freezing and energy in keeping it frozen. Again, a thermometer will help you monitor temperatures. When the power goes out, keep the freezer closed to keep the temperature cold. The rule of thumb is the fuller the freezer, the longer it will take to thaw. A half-full freezer with a closed door will keep food frozen for one to two days. A full freezer is like an ice cube that would take a long time to thaw, usually double that time. If you expect to be out of power longer than that, take steps. The first idea is to duct tape the freezer to keep the cold inside the freezer.
If you expect the power to be off longer and there are freezing temperatures outside, move items to an ice chest or a box and place them outside. Let Mother Nature do the work for you, but monitor temperatures to make sure the food remains frozen. If the items are thawed when the power comes back but the temperature of the items remains cool (below 40 degrees), you have a couple of choices. The items can be refrozen, but it may compromise the quality of the products. When food is frozen, the cell walls are broken down with the expansion of water molecules. As it thaws, the molecules move and refreezing causes a breakdown of cell walls in a different place. Repeated thawing and freezing will result in a mushy product. The second choice is to cook, cool and refreeze.
We don’t consider dry storage to be a problem in outages, but what if the cold begins to freeze your house? Beans, peas, crackers, and noodles aren’t a problem but canned goods might be. If cans are frozen, the best idea is to leave them frozen. Once power is restored, move the affected cans to the freezer or outside to keep them frozen. Keep them in a frozen state until you are ready to use them. The problem here is the freeze/thaw cycle. When water freezes, it expands. When the product is frozen, then thawed, refrozen, then thawed, it can become a problem. When subjected to the freeze/thaw cycle, there is a chance that the can seals and seams can be compromised by freezing allowing microorganisms to enter.
If you’d like further information, call us at 877-520-5211 or check online at http://bit.ly/FreezerFails for a publication outlining food safety procedures in case of an outage.
As with all food safety questions, if you have any doubts about the safety of any food, throw it out. That is particularly important in the case of an emergency disaster.
Roxie Rodgers Dinstel is associate director of Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Questions or column requests can be e-mailed to her at email@example.com or by calling 907-474-7201.