We all know that Mother Nature can wreak havoc, especially in the winter when there’s a threat of blizzards and ice storms.  In this month's column, let's consider what to do with refrigerated and frozen food in the event of a power outage, because  we never want to cause illness due to invisible, food-borne bacteria.

 Cold- storage food that reaches a temperature above 40 F for two or more hours is at risk for bacteria growth. Never taste -test this food; when in doubt, throw it out.  With this in mind, perhaps some added advice from your Penn State Extension can help to minimize the amount of cold- storage food that ends up in your garbage can during a loss of power.

For starters, keep thermometers in your refrigerator and freezer at all times.  The thermometer needs to be near the appliance's door, as this is where warm air flows into the cold storage unit; in essence,  if the thermometer reads the right temperature at the front of the appliance, then you can safely assume that the food in the back of the unit is cool.   When a power outage happens, be sure to write down the time it occurs, as this will help you determine what to do later if the power outage lasts for an extended period.

Keep fridge closed

Next, be sure to contact your power provider in order to make them aware of the outage (and try to find out when the power will be restored).  If you're told that power will return within two hours, try to keep the cold storage devices closed until then, so as to maintain the cool temperatures.  Also, if there is extra room in your freezer, try to quickly transfer as much refrigerated food to it as possible (just don't forget it's in there once power returns).

In the event of an extended power outage, items you should try to gather include:  a digital thermometer; blocks of ice or dry ice; a large cooler; frozen freezer packs; and canned or shelf- stable foods to consume in the meantime.  You can put the block ice in a pan in the refrigerator ; this can keep your refrigerator cool for about a day. You might also want to contact others in the area to see if they've retained power at their residence, and then coordinate a temporary food storage plan for your perishable items.

When you will be without electricity for longer than two hours, you need to take precautions to determine which foods you will be keeping and which you will be discarding.  After every hour that the power is out, narrowly open the door to each cold storage unit and use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature.  You might also want to consider transferring perishable food to the cooler at this time, utilizing ice and ice packs to keep everything at the proper temperature.

Throw it out

If the cold-storage food reaches 40 F for longer than two hours and it falls into one of the following categories, throw it out to avoid food-borne illness:

— Meat products, including  hot dogs, deli meats, poultry and seafood.

— Prepared dishes, such as  casseroles, cooked pastas, rice, cold salads, and anything that contains tomato sauce.

— Potatoes and potato dishes.

— Vegetable greens, cooked vegetables, and opened vegetable juices.

— Cut fruits.

— Eggs or uncooked, egg-containing foods, like doughs.

— Dairy products (yogurt, milk, shredded cheeses, soft cheeses, cream, sour cream, etc.) and dairy-containing products ( custards, puddings, cream-based dressings, etc).

— Opened sauces and sauces in which seafood or meat is an ingredient, such as fish sauce.

Food that will be safe for consumption if it reaches 40 F for two or more hours:

— Canned products.

— Fresh, uncut fruit and vegetables.

— Herbs and spices.

— Hard, processed, and grated cheeses.

— Finished baked goods.

— Spreads such as peanut butter, jelly and, margarine.

— Condiments like  relish, mustard, ketchup, barbecue sauce, salsa, and soy sauce.

— Mayonnaise, tartar sauce, and horseradish sauce, only if kept below 50 F for less than eight hours.

To avoid cross-contamination in the event of thawing, meats should be placed in a pan and stored below all other foods.  To ensure the safety of properly thawed meat, cook the item to its correct minimum internal temperature and then either eat it right away or refreeze it.  Freezer foods will stay colder than 40 F if the freezer is full for two days, but a half-full freezer will remain 40 F or below for only one day.  Thawed items can be refrozen as long as they still contain ice crystals or are verified by thermometer to be at 40 F or below, though note that the quality of the food can change from this thawing-refreezing process.

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Stacy Reed is an educator with Penn State Extension in Lancaster, specializing in food safety and nutrition.

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