Bulletin #9004, Food Safety During Disasters
Revised by Beth Calder, Associate Extension Professor and Food Science Specialist, and Jason Bolton, Associate Extension Professor and Food Safety Specialist, University of Maine
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.
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
|Milk, cream, sour cream, buttermilk, evaporated milk, yogurt||Discard|
|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|
|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|
|Vegetable juice, opened||Discard|
|Commercial garlic in oil||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|
|Lunchmeats, hotdogs, bacon, sausage, dried beef||Discard|
|Canned meats (NOT labeled “Keep Refrigerated”), but refrigerated after opening||Discard|
|Canned hams labeled “Keep Refrigerated”||Discard|
|Pies, custard, cheese-filled or chiffon||Discard|
|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|
|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|
|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|
|Casseroles containing milk, cream, eggs, soft cheese||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, rolls, muffins, cakes (without custard fillings)||Refreeze||Refreeze|
|Cakes, pies, pastries with custard or cheese filling||Refreeze||Discard|
|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.
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