When winter strikes: Food safety during a power outage

Power outages may just be the worst thing that can happen to a home during a fierce winter storm. Heating may be knocked out, leaving residents shivering under blankets. Without working lights, the darkest season becomes depressingly darker. And no electricity means no working refrigerator — presenting food safety risks that all northerners should prepare for.

When electricity is disabled in your home, it’s best to keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the temperatures inside. The coldness inside will prevent foodborne pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli from multiplying rapidly. Once the interior reaches 40°F, those pathogens can multiply rapidly. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) explains that a refrigerator can keep food cold for about four hours, and a freezer for up to 48 hours (just 24 if the freezer is only half-full). If that time passes before power is restored, it’s advisable to throw out the food stored inside. Ideally, perishable food that has been above 40°F for two or more hours should be tossed.

USDA also reminds us to isolate frozen meat in our freezers so that thawing juices don’t cross-contaminate the rest of the freezer’s contents. Other frozen items should be packed tightly to conserve coldness.

It may seem like a practical solution, but using the frigid outside to fashion a makeshift freezer isn’t the safest idea. There, food is exposed to animals that might spread contamination. Not to mention, outside temperatures can bounce up and down. When the day after the big blizzard suddenly sees a 55°F figure, your snowbank cooler will melt, and your food will reach an unsafely warm temperature. However, USDA does have an outside-related lifehack: Fill containers with water and leave them outside to get ice to put back in your fridge or freezer, helping to keep it cold without power.

Since power outages can strike suddenly in winter (and summer too), always keep the pantry stocked with nonperishable food and bottled water. This way, you’ll be prepared, no matter what the weather may bring.

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