Bulletin #9004, Food Safety During Disasters

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Revised by Beth Calder, Associate Extension Professor and Food Science Specialist, and Jason Bolton, Associate Extension Professor and Food Safety Specialist, University of Maine

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It may be a flood, hurricane, tornado — or something less devastating, such as a power outage or the freezer discovered with its door open. Sooner or later, every family faces a food emergency. Natural disasters can create food safety and supply problems that require food safety know-how. Here are some recommendations.

  • Keep an appliance thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer at all times to see if food is being stored at safe temperatures (40 degrees F for the refrigerator; 0 degrees F for the freezer. Most food borne illness is caused by bacteria that multiply rapidly at temperatures above 40 degrees F.If you use dry ice:
    • Cover the freezer with blankets, quilts or some other covering: it will help to put crumpled newspaper or wood shavings between the freezer and the blankets. Do not lock the freezer or cover the air vent openings: the gas given off by dry ice could cause an airtight container to explode.
    • The carbon dioxide gas given off by the dry ice can cause suffocation if inhaled in large amounts. Open windows or doors for ventilation, and use care when opening the freezer or storage compartment.
  • Leave the freezer door closed. A full freezer should keep food safe about two days; a half-full freezer, about one day. Add bags of ice or dry ice to the freezer if it appears the power will be off for an extended time. You can safely refreeze thawed foods that still contain ice crystals or feel cold and solid to the touch.
  • Refrigerated items should be safe as long as the power is out no more than about four to six hours. Discard any perishable food that has been above 40 degrees F for two hours or more, and any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture. Leave the refrigerator door closed; every time you open it, cold air escapes, causing the foods inside to reach unsafe temperatures. If it appears the power will be off more than six hours, transfer refrigerated perishable foods to an insulated cooler filled with ice or frozen gel packs. Keep a thermometer in the cooler to be sure the food stays at 40 degrees F or below.
  • Never taste food to determine its safety. Some foods may look and smell fine, but if they’ve been at room temperature longer than two hours, bacteria can multiply very rapidly. Some types will produce toxins that are not destroyed by cooking and could make you sick.

For more information about food safety during a power outage or disaster, call the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1.888.674.6854. The hotline is closed on Federal holidays.

VIDEO: How to Keep Food Safe After a Power Outage (YouTube)

Refrigerated Foods: When to Save and When to Throw It Out

Most food that has been held above 40 degrees F for two hours or more should be discarded. The chart that follows will help you decide when you need to throw something out because it might not be safe to eat.

REFRIGERATED FOOD Kept above 40° F for
more than 2 hours
Dairy Products
Milk, cream, sour cream, buttermilk, evaporated milk, yogurt Discard
Butter, margarine Safe
Baby formula, opened Discard
Fresh eggs, hard-cooked in shell, egg dishes, egg products Discard
Custards and puddings Discard
Soft cheeses: blue (bleu or imported), brie, camembert, Colby, cottage, cream, edam, jack, mozzarella, muenster, Neufchatel, ricotta, Roquefort Discard
Hard cheeses: cheddar, parmesan, provolone, Romano, Swiss Safe
Processed cheeses (American) Safe
Shredded cheeses Discard
Low-fat cheeses Discard
Commercial grated hard cheese purchased in a can or jar (Parmesan, Romano or combination) Safe
Fruit juices, opened Safe
Canned fruits, opened Safe
Fresh fruits, coconut, raisins, dried fruits, candied fruits, dates Safe
Fresh cut-up fruits Discard
Fresh mushrooms, herbs and spices Safe
Vegetables, raw Safe
Vegetables, cooked Discard
Vegetable juice, opened Discard
Baked potatoes Discard
Commercial garlic in oil Discard
Potato salad Discard
Casseroles, Soups and Stews Discard
Meat, Poultry, Seafood
Fresh or leftover meat, poultry, fish or seafood Discard
Thawing meat or poultry Discard
Meat, tuna, shrimp, chicken, egg salad Discard
Gravy, stuffing Discard
Lunchmeats, hotdogs, bacon, sausage, dried beef Discard
Pizza—any topping Discard
Canned meats (NOT labeled “Keep Refrigerated”), but refrigerated after opening Discard
Canned hams labeled “Keep Refrigerated” Discard
Pies, Pastry
Pastries, cream-filled Discard
Pies, custard, cheese-filled or chiffon Discard
Pies, fruit Safe
Bread, Cakes, Cookies, Pasta
Bread, rolls, cakes, muffins, quick breads Safe
Refrigerator biscuits, rolls, cookie dough Discard
Cooked pasta, spaghetti Discard
Pasta salads with mayonnaise or vinegar base Discard
Fresh pasta Discard
Cheesecake Discard
Breakfast foods: waffles, pancakes, bagels Safe
Sauces, Spreads, Jams
Opened mayonnaise, tartar sauce, horseradish Discard if above 50° for over 8 hours.
Peanut butter, jelly, relish, taco and BBQ sauce, mustard, catsup, olives Safe
White wine, Worcestershire sauce Discard
Fish sauces (oyster sauce) Discard
Hoisin sauce Discard
Opened vinegar-based dressings Safe
Deli-prepared foods: salads, coleslaw, cooked meats or poultry, luncheon meats Discard


FROZEN FOOD Still contains ice crystals and feels as cold as if refrigerated Thawed. Held above 40° F for more than 2 hours
Meat, Poultry, Seafood
Beef, veal, lamb, pork and ground meats Refreeze Discard
Poultry and ground poultry Refreeze Discard
Variety meats (liver, kidney, heart, chitterlings) Refreeze Discard
Casseroles, stews, soups Refreeze Discard
Fish, shellfish, breaded seafood products Refreeze. However, there will be some texture and flavor loss. Discard
Milk Refreeze. May lose some texture. Discard
Eggs (out of shell) and egg products Refreeze Discard
Ice cream, frozen yogurt Discard (poor quality) Discard
Cheese (soft and semi-soft) Refreeze. May lose texture Discard
Hard cheeses Refreeze Refreeze
Shredded cheeses Refreeze Discard
Casseroles containing milk, cream, eggs, soft cheese Refreeze Discard
Cheesecake Refreeze Discard
Juices Refreeze Refreeze. Discard if mold, yeasty smell or sliminess develops.
Home or commercially packaged Refreeze. Will change in texture and flavor. Refreeze. Discard if mold, yeasty smell or sliminess develops.
Juices Refreeze Discard after held above 40° F for 6 hours.
Home or commercially packaged or blanched Refreeze. May suffer texture and flavor loss. Discard after held above 40° F for 6 hours
Breads, Pastries
Breads, rolls, muffins, cakes (without custard fillings) Refreeze Refreeze
Cakes, pies, pastries with custard or cheese filling Refreeze Discard
Pie crusts Refreeze Refreeze
Commercial and homemade bread dough Refreeze. Some quality loss may occur. Refreeze. Considerable quality loss.
Casseroles: pasta, rice-based Refreeze Discard
Breakfast items—waffles, pancakes, bagels Refreeze Refreeze
Frozen meal, entree, specialty items (pizza, sausage and biscuit, meat pie, convenience foods) Refreeze Discard

Source: USDA, Food Safety Inspection Service, Consumer Publications, Winter, 1995. Reviewed by Mahmoud El-Begearmi, Extension specialist, nutrition and food safety.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 1998, 2014

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