As we head into the winter weather, power outages are sure to occur. A power failure can send a chill through every homemaker's soul and causes much concern over what to do with all the food in the refrigerator and freezer. Here are a few tips for the next time you lose power.
First, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed. You can also insulate the appliance by placing a heavy blanket over the unit in order to keep the cold air from seeping out and the warm air from getting in. In case the power comes back on, be sure the air vents aren't blocked.
If the power is back on within a couple of hours, food in the refrigerator and freezer should be fine, as long as you minimized opening the unit's doors. A full, freestanding freezer will stay at freezing temperatures about two days; a half-full freezer about one day. If the freezer is not full, group packages together so they will retain the cold.
If you have room, it's always a good idea to have frozen gallon jugs of water in the freezer. These will help to keep the temperature low should the power go out.
If the power will be out for an extended time, over six hours, you may want to put dry ice in your freezer. Another alternative is to find a friend who has power and space in their freezer. If you use dry ice, never touch the ice with your hands or breathe its vapors in an enclosed area. Three sources of dry ice I have located are Mobile Med (910-323-9559) in Fayetteville and Capital Ice (919-821-5555) in Raleigh, and Continental Carbonic (336-824-4770) in Ramseur. Each of these sources sell dry ice by the pound and recommend 25 pounds to hold a 10-cubic foot full freezer for three to four days. Cost runs less that two dollars per pound and depends on how much you get.
Once power is restored, you need to evaluate each food item for safety. If you have any doubt, "Throw It Out". Foods warmed to above 40° F for two to three hours may not be safe to eat. Partially thawed foods can be refrozen if ice crystals are present.
Refreezing reduces the quality of foods, particularly fruits, vegetables and prepared foods. If the color or odor of the thawed food is questionable, get rid of the food, it may be dangerous. Raw meats and poultry from the freezer can usually be refrozen without too much quality loss. Completely thawed seafood, melted ice cream, cream pies, TV dinners, stuffed poultry and ground meats should be discarded. Before discarding your food, take pictures and make a list of spoiled food and share the list with your insurance agent. Damaged food may be covered by your insurance policy.
Refrigerated items should be safe as long as the power is out no more than a few hours. Fresh meats, poultry, lunchmeats, hot dogs, eggs, milk and prepared foods should be discarded if they have been held above 40° F for over two hours. Foods that can safely be stored above 41°F for a few days include juices, vinegar and oil salad dressings, ketchup, pickles, jams and jellies, hard cheeses, fruits and vegetables are safe as long as they are still firm and there is no evidence of mold, a yeasty smell or sliminess. Well-wrapped butter and margarine can usually be kept as long as they do not melt, but should be discarded if mold or rancid odors develop.
And a special note: If the food is not considered safe for you or your family, do not feed it to your pets. Either secure it well in a plastic garbage bag for garbage pickup, bury or compost it.
If you have a specific question concerning this topic, be sure to call me at North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Lee County Center, at 775-5624.
Susan C. Condlin is County Extension Director for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.