En español | Hurricanes, heat waves and other natural disasters heighten the risk of power outages. And if the power goes out for an extended period, the food in your refrigerator and freezer can spoil, making it unsafe to eat. While the financial hit from losing a fridge full of food is hard to swallow, the hit your health can take from food poisoning – particularly if you're older – is even harder to bear.
"Older adults, especially those 65 or older, are at higher risk from severe illness from the germs that cause food poisoning,” said Brian Katzowitz, health communications specialist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “In fact, nearly half of people 65 or older diagnosed with a foodborne illness like salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter or listeria are hospitalized."
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During a power outage, it's critical to understand how long the food in your refrigerator and freezer will stay safe to eat. It's also critical to know the steps you can take to evaluate the safety of your food and keep it safe for as long as possible. Follow these eight tips from federal food-safety experts to avoid getting sick from spoiled food when you lose power.
Before a power outage
1. Keep the refrigerator at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the freezer at 0 degrees or less. This will allow you to maintain the quality of your food longer if you lose electricity. Once the internal temperature of refrigerated and frozen foods goes above 40 degrees, germs that cause foodborne illnesses can begin to multiply.
2. Buy dry ice or block ice to help keep your food cold in the refrigerator longer. Having a cooler and frozen gel packs on hand may be helpful if you need to remove food from the fridge to keep it cold.
During a power outage
3. Keep your freezer and refrigerator doors shut as much as possible. Food can stay safe for up to 48 hours in a full freezer, 24 hours in a freezer that's half full, and up to four hours in the refrigerator.
4. Transfer refrigerated food to a cooler if power has been out for four hours. Keep the temperature in the cooler at 40 degrees or below with the help of ice or a frozen gel pack.
After a power outage
5. Never taste food to check if it's still good. There can still be germs that cause food poisoning even if the food looks, smells or tastes normal.
6. Refreeze or cook frozen foods if they still contain ice crystals or read below 40 degrees on a food thermometer. Otherwise, throw out foods that are too warm or have an odd smell, texture or color.
7. Throw out perishable food. Be especially attentive to food like meat, fish, cut fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk and leftovers if the power is out longer than four hours without an additional cold source. If you experienced flooding, throw away any food that came in contact with floodwater.
8. Clean and sanitize kitchen items and surfaces that have been flooded such as dishes, utensils, a refrigerator drawer or kitchen countertops. Wash first with clean, soapy water, then sanitize with a bleach solution (mix 1 cup of unscented household chlorine bleach with 5 gallons of clean water). Throw out wooden cutting boards because they cannot be properly sanitized.
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency's Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.