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Help! power outage: is my food still safe?

  • mschow Jul 28, 2008 08:52 AM
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We were out of power here yesterday for 12 hours. During that time I only opened the freezer for a few seconds and did not open the frig at all. The power came back on around 3 AM; I had some milk from the frig (which I purchased about an hour before the power went out) around 10 this morning and it tasted fine. However, a neighbor called and told me she is throwing everything away from her freezer and frig. We're been having ongoing problems every time it rains here lately with the power. Tuesday we were without power around 5-6 hours, this time it was 12 hours. Is my food safe to eat? I have a packed freezer and I really don't want to throw away all that expensive food. I have purposely not opened the freezer since yesterday to keep in all the cold.
What should I do?
Thanks

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  1. The food police are going to come out in force......I can't find the link right now but I believe the Food and Drug Administration may have guidelines on how long food could be held safely.

    I've been in your situation before. You don't say what type of freezer you have (part of the fridge, stand alone chest, stand alone upright) but the food there should be ok. The freezer is pretty well insulated, especially if it is a stand alone unit, and the contents keep it pretty cold. You might have some slight freezer burn on the "surface" items and might want check out less substantial items that are on the outside edges.

    Your refrigerated items should be reviewed and possibly discarded. If you had a thermometer in your refridgerator, you could have judged when you were hitting the danger zone (over 40 degrees). Food can taste fine but still harbor some nasty things. I'd personally not take the chance and would pitch the highly perishable stuff.

    As an aside, you may want to invest in a small generator if you have problems with frequent power outtages. You don't need a big one; just one that can handle four to six appliances (less than $1,000; anything more may be overkill). You may have to fill up the gas tank every now and then but that's alot cheaper than throwing out your food.....for now, while gas is ~$4/gal. We had a generator because we lived on a well and septic and had sump pumps to keep the crawlspace dry. When the power went out, we lost everything. Of course, it was usually during rain storms and we didn't want water in the basement!

    6 Replies
    1. re: Dee S

      Thanks. I did go to the FDA site and it looks like my freezer, which was quite full, should be fine. I had some homemade chicken stock, oj, bacon, eggs, cheese, butter, mayo, produce and tons of mustards and condiments in the frig. I'll toss the bacon and eggs, oj and cheese. What about the condiments, butter and unopened cheese?
      What a pain in the neck. Thanks for the tip about the generator. Yet one more thing I can't afford to do right now, but I did think about it last night!

      1. re: mschow

        Condiments should be ok. The cheese is probably ok too. The eggs are probably fine as well. Bacon? Hmmm.....I can't bring myself to throw out bacon (was it opened? If no, keep).....the homemade chicken stock would be more of a concern to me.

        I'm with Sherri though. I've lived a long time without fussing too much about these things. I do err on the side of caution when giving others advice....we live in quite the litigous society and I'm sure someone will sue someone else for advice on a web site.

        1. re: mschow

          Eggs, butter and cheese (especially hard cheese) should be perfectly fine. None need to be refrigerated for safety reasons, although refrigeration prolongs their shelf life. Most condiments (ketchup, mustard, mayo, and the like) don't need refrigeration for safety reasons either, although refrigeration is recommended to preserve quality. 12 hours without refrigeration shouldn't be a problem re. those item. The bacon is smoked -- I would eat it.

          The primary things I would worry about are cold cuts, already-cooked leftovers and soft/liquid dairy (cottage cheese, etc.), although with regard to the milk/cottage cheese, etc., I'd use the smell test, because you will be able to easily tell if they've gone off. Leftovers, I'd throw out, and any cold cuts.

          1. re: mschow

            The only thing that might possibly be an issue is the chicken stock. Simmer it for ten minutes and you're good to go. Agreed with DanaB that leftovers and cold cuts should go.

            1. re: alanbarnes

              Boiling the stock is even better.

            2. re: mschow

              For future reference, whenever this has happened to me, when the power comes back on I immediately check the freezer and give a good poke to the stuff in there. If it's still hard, it's good. If it's pretty squishy it goes. Problem is, if you wait awhile after the power comes back on, things will harden up again and you won't know how warm they got.

          2. In order for your frozen food to become unsafe, it would have to thaw and stay above 40 degrees for quite some time. Did that happen? If not, it remains safe. There might be a slight deterioration in quality if it got to the mushy, but it isn't dangerous. The fact that it "packed" works in your favor to hold the cold.

            The refrigerator may be a different story. Age, quality and "fullness" of the appliance is important. I own a 6 year old fridge that began losing cooling a couple of months ago due to some leak. Normally I keep it at 38 degrees and put a block of ice in it when I couldn't get a repairman for several days. There is a computer chip in the machine which told him that it never got above 45 degrees. We consumed the contents with no ill effects. Mind you, this 45 degree temp. was over a several day period, not the 12 hours you report. By not opening the fridge, you're likely still OK.

            I do not belong to the "if in doubt, throw it out" brigade since I find the philosophy very wasteful. I used to cook on a sailboat for weeks at a time using only a cooler for fridge. I doubt that it ever got to - and held - the recommended below 40 degrees, yet we all lived quite happily ever after. Nervous Nellies will have my gizzards for voicing these thoughts but might provoke some interesting posts ................ Stand by.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Sherri

              Anything mushy should go out; milk, I'd throw out; something like chicken or ground beef ought to go, too. If it's still frozen, that should not be a problem.

            2. As long as you kept the doors CLOSED and didn't open them during the time the power was off, your food should be just fine, especially since you said the freezer was packed - the more you had in there, the better it will have stayed cold.

              1. Some of you people have obviously never lived where power outages are common. I'm in the Dana B et al camp.

                Smell test on the milk...reheat the chicken stock and cook the bacon.

                The butter, cheese, eggs, and condiments will be just fine. There are many places in the world where these things are not refrigerated.

                And yeah, any leftovers I'd toss. Mayo I've heard is not the problem many think it is, but I don't use it so can offer no advice.

                Unless you have very young children, elderly or immune-compromised people in your household, then I guess I'd be a nervous nellie.

                1. Everything in the ref and freezer is fine.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    I agree, my parents grew up without a fridge, things don't go off that quickly and you can smell them when they do. Eggs don't need refridgeration anyway. neither does cheese for a few days. Go to a French market and many items sit outside all day with no ill effects!!

                  2. If you maintain a well-stocked freezer and are subject to frequent power outages I recommend the purchase of a portable generator. You can "recharge" your freezer with about 10 minutes of generator time every 2 hours.
                    Mschow, you have not posted a profile but you appear to be from central Jersey; is ConEd service that sporadic?

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Veggo

                      Veggo:
                      I am actually just outside Philadelphia, and am serviced by PSEG. Power on my street went out around 2:15 PM, when it was raining lightly (way before the rainstorm, thunder and lightening), and did not come back on until 3 AM the next day. The crack team from PSEG showed up to repair the line around 8:30 PM, just before it got dark!! Earlier in the week we were without power for 5-6 hours. All the streets around us had power but they seem unable to fix whatever is wrong on our street. It's supposed to rain later in the week. I'm stocking up on candles.

                    2. The only things I would be concerned about are the things you brought home from the market about an hour before the power failure struck. How long were they in your shopping basket and car? And boiling the chicken stock couldn't hurt. A well stocked freezer should sail through 12 hourse with flying colors. It's the minimally stocked freezers that are a danger. And if you can possibly swing it, I say the hell with a generator. Make your won electricity! Tax breaks and such make photo voltaics "free" in several states, and brown outs and power failures aren't going to get better!

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Caroline1

                        Safety, Schmafety! Went thru something similar a cupla weeks ago. Our problem wasn't safety - but taste. We got the same assurances about safety, and we went about eating it all. Many of the things we cooked we decided to toss after a few bites. In the future, we'll likely be a lot quicker to toss it, even if it is safe. It wasn't that it tasted spoiled - it didn't. Mostly, it didn't taste of anything, and certainly did not taste of what it was. Frozen veggies were the worst. Frozen fruits close behind. They tasted like wet cardboard (Actually, I've never eaten wet cardboard, but it tasted like what I imagined wet cardboard would taste like.) I hope you have better luck with flavor.

                        1. re: Potomac Bob

                          On safety, I'm firmly in the camp with those who say just about all of it is fine---certainly butter (we leave it out on the counter for days, maybe in one of those butter bells sometimes) and eggs (worrying about eggs going bad is crazy--my family used to be in the egg business---if eggs were going to go bad with non-refrigeration, how could chick embryos develop in the first place--if eggs are not refrigerated, they will eventually get runny, but they don't go bad for weeks.)

                          However, the point about quality, for some foods, is well taken. Clarence Birseye, the inventor of frozen foods, is said to have started the myth about re-freezing being "unsafe" not because it is per se, but because he knew it degrades quality (texture and taste) and didn't want his customers to make that mistake and decide they wouldn't buy frozen foods.

                      2. it is fine. don't throw it out. 12 hours? unopened? you are good to go!

                        about the chicken stock, i agree with alan barnes. (upthread)

                        1. Here is what I did: I threw away all the cold cuts, some coleslaw, opened cheese, sour cream and yogurts. I did, regretfully, pitch my really delicious homemade stock. I did not throw away anything from the freezer, but I do have some frozen vegetables in there that after reading about the loss in flavor, I might toss.
                          Thanks everyone.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: mschow

                            mschow, it sounds like you did good! glad your blackout was relatively short, and hope you don't have any more bad ones!

                            As for the chicken stock, read this thread for future reference:

                            http://www.chowhound.com/topics/513068

                            I probably wouldn't have tossed it (boiling it for ten minutes does wonders -- homemade aromatic stocks in some asian cuisines are sometimes used for years if not generations!). Your option to keep the stock and enjoy it later (or rather, to toss it) was kind of a "live and learn" or personal preference decision only you could make ;-)

                          2. If you have frequent power outages you need a plan.
                            I grew up in New Orleans where we had frequent hurricanes (let's not even talk about Katrina) and tropical storms and have a house on a island in the Chesapeake where we lose power often.
                            You can cope. There's no need to throw stuff out if you prepare for the inevitable.
                            Keep your freezer full. Fill the empty space with jugs of water. The solid blocks of ice melt very slowly and keep everything frozen much longer. If the power goes out for more than a couple of hours, grab a couple out of the freezer and put them into the fridge to turn it into a big ad hoc ice chest. Cluster the food around the ice blocks.
                            Pack the frozen food closely together and put some newspaper around it and in front of it for extra insulation.
                            We've had success for a couple of days with this.
                            The advice given above about things lasting in cool but not real refrigerated temps is good. You can eat a lot of stuff out of the fridge while you're "camping out" until the power comes back on.
                            The local electrician is doing a bang-up business with home windmills near my house on the Chesapeake. The price on them has dropped to where they're pretty reasonable and we've got good prevailing winds.
                            When the price drops some more and technology improves, we'll all be off the grid.

                            1. The food is fine. As long as your family is OK there's nothing to worry about.

                              1. I live in Chicago where tens of thousands of people are still without power after a big storm and a couple tornadoes went through on Monday. Our power went out around 1am Tuesday morning and just came back on 9:30 this morning. In that time we did not open our fridge or freezer once; is our food still safe? I read all of the advice for mschow, but 32 hours is a far cry from 12. I'm wondering about condiments, cheese, frozen chicken, etc. I know our lunch meat and any frozen foods that have thawed will have to go, correct? Unfortunately, the power came back while I was at work, so I wasn't able to check the temperature of the fridge and freezer. Any advice would be appreciated! Thanks!

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: srcopela

                                  Lunch meat is a potential germ factory. Everybody tends to stick their hands in the package to get a piece, then toss the package back in the fridge. If it comes up to room temp. for a while, germs proliferate. And unless you plan to dip your turkey sandwich in bleach or boil it for a while, you're not going to have an opportunity to kill those germs. Leftovers fall into the same general category; they may have been handled, sneezed on, or cross-contaminated, so should be discarded if they're not going to be fully reheated for at least several minutes.

                                  As for frozen foods that have thawed, why pitch them? You would have thawed them before eating them anyway, no? Cook 'em up and chow down. If there's more than you can eat in a day or two, make soup (or lasagne, or shredded chicken, or whatever) and re-freeze.

                                  Cheese doesn't spoil. Or, more to the point, it's milk that's already spoiled. It will mold faster at room temperature, but you get a solid visual clue if that's a problem. And AFAIK there isn't a condiment out there that requires refrigeration for safety reasons.

                                  Short answer: your food is safe, with the possible exception of foods that were already contaminated with small amounts of pathogens. Warm temps will allow those pathogens to multiply. Use common sense, but why pitch perfectly good food?

                                  1. re: alanbarnes

                                    Wise advice !Agreed,waste is just sooooo ? prep,cook and eat or refreeze.

                                2. We lost power a couple of weeks ago, at 11:30 pm, just as we were all going to bed. We got up in the morning to no power, ran some errands, came back at 11 and the power came on shortly after that. I didn't even think about throwing anything away because everything in the fridge was still cold - the butter was still hard, the milk still at a drinkable temp. So I guess it just depends on your fridge, or the temp in the house.

                                  1. mschow, I read the whole thread, so I see you've reached a solution, but I felt I'd add my two cents worth for the general issues this raises.

                                    I hate to see waste, so unless you are serving this food to the elderly, the very young, or persons with compromised immune systems, then I'd hope you'd give your food a shot. Twelve hours in an unpowered refrigerator is not the same as twelve hours out in the hot sun.

                                    I keep a stick of butter in a butter dish on the kitchen counter. Never had a problem, besides the consistency in very hot weather. For what it's worth, I keep salted butter on the counter, because I've heard it spoils less quickly than unsalted. (I keep unsalted for baking in the fridge and freezer.)

                                    With milk, I'm told the higher the fat content, the faster the spoilage. But just sniff it. Smells fine? Probably is fine. I've had perfectly fine milk that is way past the expiration date. Likewise, I've taken a swig of milk that had gone quite rancid. I cringed, gagged, and spit it out. Did I die? No. Did I even get sick? No.

                                    I had an old roommate who kept her eggs on a shelf in the pantry. They never made her sick. (I keep mine in the fridge anyway.)

                                    Even in the fridge cheese can get moldy. I just cut off the mold and keep going. Only if it still tastes off do I dispose of it.

                                    You'd be cooking bacon thoroughly anyway, right, under the assumption that uncooked pork is unsafe to begin with? How much more unsafe could it get that a thorough cooking wouldn't help?

                                    Condiments? Don't condiments sit out in the warm air at restaurants all day?

                                    In olden days, people would build creekhouses, allowing them to store food in the natural cold of a creek's running water. Once, when I needed to turn off my fridge to defrost the freezer, I sealed everything up as airtight as I could, and put it all in cold water in my bathtub.

                                    I'm no FDA scientist, so maybe I'm wrong. But I tend to err on the side of not panicking. For what it's worth.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: weem

                                      >>With milk, I'm told the higher the fat content, the faster the spoilage. But just sniff it. Smells fine? Probably is fine. I've had perfectly fine milk that is way past the expiration date. Likewise, I've taken a swig of milk that had gone quite rancid. I cringed, gagged, and spit it out. Did I die? No. Did I even get sick? No.<<

                                      From what I've been told and anecdotal experiences, I always believed the reverse was true of milk -- i.e. the higher the fat content, the longer it keeps. Lowfat and skim milk tend to go off faster than whole milk and cream, for instance. I'm no FDA scientist either, so have no answer myself, but would love to know what the community has to say on this point . . .

                                      1. re: DanaB

                                        in my experience, higher fat milk keeps longer.

                                        1. re: DanaB

                                          Hmm, interesting. I recall hearing that on the news. And it seems like the half-and-half goes bad faster than the skim. But again, I could easily be wrong on that point.

                                      2. i ate sauerkraut and meatballs for two and a half days out of our fridge after hurricane charley knocked out power. i've spent a lifetime prepping my body for iffy-food (or what others would consider "iffy".

                                        a few years back, though, i got nailed by *refrigerated* leftover grilled pork sausages. i ate them, then felt a cloud of fuzziness moving like a bow-front storm through my brain. it was the most bizarre physical sensation i've ever had. then i went down in a faint and woke up a half-hour (?) later. never did throw-up though! (yay, alkapal, thanks for THAT story!!)