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 FOODKept above 40° F for
more than 2 hours
Dairy Products
Milk, cream, sour cream, buttermilk, evaporated milk, yogurtDiscard
Butter, margarineSafe
Baby formula, openedDiscard
Fresh eggs, hard-cooked in shell, egg dishes, egg productsDiscard
Custards and puddingsDiscard
Soft cheeses: blue (bleu or imported), brie, camembert, Colby, cottage, cream, edam, jack, mozzarella, muenster, Neufchatel, ricotta, RoquefortDiscard
Hard cheeses: cheddar, parmesan, provolone, Romano, SwissSafe
Processed cheeses (American)Safe
Shredded cheesesDiscard
Low-fat cheesesDiscard
Commercial grated hard cheese purchased in a can or jar (Parmesan, Romano or combination)Safe
Fruit juices, openedSafe
Canned fruits, openedSafe
Fresh fruits, coconut, raisins, dried fruits, candied fruits, datesSafe
Fresh cut-up fruitsDiscard
Fresh mushrooms, herbs and spicesSafe
Vegetables, rawSafe
Vegetables, cookedDiscard
Vegetable juice, openedDiscard
Baked potatoesDiscard
Commercial garlic in oilDiscard
Potato saladDiscard
Casseroles, Soups and Stews Discard
Meat, Poultry, Seafood
Fresh or leftover meat, poultry, fish or seafoodDiscard
Thawing meat or poultryDiscard
Meat, tuna, shrimp, chicken, egg saladDiscard
Gravy, stuffingDiscard
Lunchmeats, hotdogs, bacon, sausage, dried beefDiscard
Pizza—any toppingDiscard
Canned meats (NOT labeled “Keep Refrigerated”), but refrigerated after openingDiscard
Canned hams labeled “Keep Refrigerated”Discard
Pies, Pastry
Pastries, cream-filledDiscard
Pies, custard, cheese-filled or chiffonDiscard
Pies, fruitSafe
Bread, Cakes, Cookies, Pasta
Bread, rolls, cakes, muffins, quick breadsSafe
Refrigerator biscuits, rolls, cookie doughDiscard
Cooked pasta, spaghettiDiscard
Pasta salads with mayonnaise or vinegar baseDiscard
Fresh pastaDiscard
Breakfast foods: waffles, pancakes, bagelsSafe
Sauces, Spreads, Jams
Opened mayonnaise, tartar sauce, horseradishDiscard if above 50° for over 8 hours.
Peanut butter, jelly, relish, taco and BBQ sauce, mustard, catsup, olivesSafe
White wine, Worcestershire sauceDiscard
Fish sauces (oyster sauce)Discard
Hoisin sauceDiscard
Opened vinegar-based dressingsSafe
Deli-prepared foods: salads, coleslaw, cooked meats or poultry, luncheon meatsDiscard
FROZEN FOOD Still contains ice crystals and feels as cold as if refrigeratedThawed. Held above 40° F for more than 2 hours
Meat, Poultry, Seafood
Beef, veal, lamb, pork and ground meatsRefreezeDiscard
Poultry and ground poultryRefreezeDiscard
Variety meats (liver, kidney, heart, chitterlings)RefreezeDiscard
Casseroles, stews, soupsRefreezeDiscard
Fish, shellfish, breaded seafood productsRefreeze. However, there will be some texture and flavor loss.Discard
MilkRefreeze. May lose some texture.Discard
Eggs (out of shell) and egg productsRefreezeDiscard
Ice cream, frozen yogurtDiscard (poor quality)Discard
Cheese (soft and semi-soft)Refreeze. May lose textureDiscard
Hard cheesesRefreezeRefreeze
Shredded cheesesRefreezeDiscard
Casseroles containing milk, cream, eggs, soft cheeseRefreezeDiscard
JuicesRefreezeRefreeze. Discard if mold, yeasty smell or sliminess develops.
Home or commercially packagedRefreeze. Will change in texture and flavor.Refreeze. Discard if mold, yeasty smell or sliminess develops.
JuicesRefreezeDiscard after held above 40° F for 6 hours.
Home or commercially packaged or blanchedRefreeze. May suffer texture and flavor loss.Discard after held above 40° F for 6 hours
Breads, Pastries
Breads, rolls, muffins, cakes (without custard fillings)RefreezeRefreeze
Cakes, pies, pastries with custard or cheese fillingRefreezeDiscard
Pie crustsRefreezeRefreeze
Commercial and homemade bread doughRefreeze. Some quality loss may occur.Refreeze. Considerable quality loss.
Casseroles: pasta, rice-basedRefreezeDiscard
Breakfast items—waffles, pancakes, bagelsRefreezeRefreeze
Frozen meal, entree, specialty items (pizza, sausage and biscuit, meat pie, convenience foods)RefreezeDiscard

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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