Preserving Food When a Storm Hits Home

Marti Johnson, California, and John Hal Johnson, Utah, USA

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    When power is out for a few hours or a few days, what can you do to keep cold storage items from spoiling? Here’s what I’ve discovered after extensive research and consulting with my father, a retired professor of food science.

    • Keep the refrigerator or freezer door shut to minimize the loss of cold air. The temperature needs to stay below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius). To check the temperature, keep a portable thermometer on the top shelf of each unit. Freezer temperature should maintain ice crystals—that means it should be at or below 5 degrees F (-15 C) to keep quality. Frozen meat that has partially thawed but still has ice crystals can be safely refrozen. Chest freezers keep foods frozen longer.

    • If the refrigerator is unopened, the food inside should be safe for at least four hours. Most full freezers keep food frozen for two days if the doors remain closed. If the freezer is half full, however, you’ll need to quickly group food together to preserve the cold; still, it may stay frozen for only a day. If thawing does start, meat products that still have ice crystals when the freezer starts working again can be safely refrozen and eaten later.

    • As a preventive measure, don’t leave the freezer low on food. If it tends to be near empty, fill plastic gallon bottles with water and keep them frozen in the freezer.

    • Put trays beneath frozen food in case it begins to thaw and leak. If you have to move items to other locations, trays will help you move food faster.

    • Add bagged or block ice to the refrigerator or freezer if the power isn’t restored quickly or if a technician can’t come immediately.

    • If the power outage continues and the freezer’s cooling ability is still affected, use camping coolers. Put the most-valued items in the coolers and pack the top with bagged or large block ice. You’ll need about two 10-pound bags per day to chill a loaded 60-quart cooler. Remember to drain the coolers regularly as the ice melts, particularly if your food is not in waterproof containers, or start cooking the food.

    • If you are worried about the quality of food once the refrigerator and freezer are working again, throw it away. Dealing with food-borne illness isn’t worth the risk.

    • Store a variety of shelf-stable foods. Many freezer foods, including meat, can also be canned and stored on your pantry shelf.

    • Keep this information and other handy references in an emergency preparedness binder or folder.