The Power’s Out — Now What?

Properly storing perishable foods like dairy products is usually no problem when your refrigerator/freezer is working as it should. However, problems affecting not only the quality of your food but the safety of it as well occur when the temperature inside the unit rises above safe or acceptable levels. A common cause for this would be a power outage due to a bad storm. Here are some helpful tips to keep food safe when the power goes out.

  • Eliminate guesswork. Keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer at all times. Temperature is vital information to know during a power outage.
  • When the power goes out, keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed – open only as necessary.
  • Refrigerated items should be safe for up to four hours—if the temperature inside has been maintained at 40°F (or lower).
  • Most perishable foods that have been above 40°F for two hours or more should be thrown out.
  • A full freezer will stay at a safe temperature for about two days; a half-full freezer for about one day.
  • Some foods that have partially thawed may be safely refrozen if they contain ice crystals; however, all foods need to be evaluated separately to determine safety.
  • When in doubt, throw it out.

What to Keep and What to Pitch?

Refrigerated Dairy Foods

As mentioned above, most perishable foods—including dairy – should be discarded if they have been above 40°F for longer than two hours; however, there are exceptions. When it comes to dairy, the following are considered safe even if held above 40°F for more than two hours:

  • Hard cheeses: Cheddar, Colby, Swiss, Parmesan, provolone, Romano
  • Processed cheeses
  • Grated Parmesan, Romano or combination (in can or jar)
  • Butter, margarine

Dairy Foods That Have Been Frozen

Here is a handy chart to help you determine which dairy foods to keep from your freezer and which ones to toss once power is restored. (Remember: Never taste food to determine its safety.)

Food (Freezer temperature should be at or below 0°F) Still contains ice crystals and feels cold as if refrigerated Thawed. Held above 40°F for more than two hours
Milk Refreeze. May loose some texture. Discard
Ice Cream, Frozen Yogurt Discard Discard
Cheeses (soft and semi-soft) Refreeze. Mya loose some texture. Discard
Cheeses (hard) Refreeze Refreeze
Cheeses (shredded) Refreeze Discard
Casseroles containing milk, cream, eggs, soft cheeses Refreeze Discard
Cheesecake Refreeze Discard

Food safety should always be a top concern when buying, handling, cooking and storing foods. Being informed about general storage guidelines, as well as how to protect foods during a power outage, will help preserve the quality and safety of the foods you serve your family.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture Fact Sheet: Keeping Food Safe During an Emergency

Storage Guidelines to Maintain Quality, Freshness and Safety

Proper storage and handling of food products is a necessity that will help maintain the quality, freshness and safety of the items you purchase and provide for your family.

Dairy foods are perishable and should always be kept cold. Here are some general guidelines* for storage from date of purchase.

  Refrigerator (at or below 40ºF) Freezer (at or below 0ºF)
Cheese, hard (ex. Swiss or Cheddar) 3 to 4 weeks. 6 months
Cheese, soft (ex. brie) 1 week 6 months
Cottage cheese, ricotta 1 week Don't freeze
Cream cheese 2 weeks Don't freeze
Cream, heavy 1 month Don't freeze
Milk 5-7 days 3 months
Sour cream 7-21 days Don't freeze
Yogurt 7-14 days 1-2 months
Half & Half 3-4 days 4 months

Because of the way it is processed, shelf-stable (UHT – ultra high temperature) milk can be stored at room temperature; however, once opened, it must be refrigerated.

Product Dating

Food packaging has a lot of information that is useful when making decisions about purchases. You will see different terms and dates that might be confusing. Here are definitions** to help clarify what you see about product dating:

“Sell By” date: Tells the store how long to display the product for sale. While this date allows for reasonable time to use the food at home, you should buy the product before this date expires.

“Best if Used By” (or Before) date: Recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

“Use By” date: The last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality; determined by the manufacturer.

*Home Food Safety:
NSF Food Safety: Food Safety Fact Kit
**U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Kitchen Companion – Your Safe Food Handout

During the Holidays

Foodborne illness is quite common but hard to diagnose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48 million people get sick and 3,000 people die each year from foodborne diseases. Typical symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, can appear as quickly as a few hours after eating, to several days after. In a healthy person, recovery is usually quick and the symptoms are often mistaken for the flu, and passed off as a minor “stomach bug.” However, foodborne illness can be much more serious for certain groups of people: young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those individuals with a weakened immune system due to disease.

Be aware of what you can do at home to minimize the risk of foodborne illness to you, your family and your guests this holiday season.

At the holidays and any time, always follow these basic food safety tips from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, when handling or cooking food:

  • Clean – wash hands and surfaces often
  • Separate – don’t cross-contaminate
  • Cook – Cook to proper/safe temperatures
  • Chill – refrigerate promptly

Questions about turkey stuffing (dressing) always surface during this time of year as well. For optimum safety, it’s recommended to cook dressing separately in a casserole dish; however, many people still choose to cook it in the turkey. Regardless of whether it’s cooked inside or outside the bird, it’s important to make sure the stuffing reaches a minimum temperature of 165 degrees.