Like most people, you probably have a vague sense of how to keep your refrigerated food safe when you lose electricity. But there's more to it than simply keeping your refrigerator doors closed. A prolonged power outage can result in food-borne illness if you don't take the proper steps to ensure your food stays bacteria free. Older adults are particularly susceptible.

Heed these tips to keep your food—and your family—safe when the lights go out.

  1. Take your refrigerator's temperature. Keep an appliance thermometer in your refrigerator to make sure the temperature is always set at 40° F or lower. Your freezer's temperature should never rise above 0° F.
  2. Throw out perishables that have been in the refrigerator longer than four hours after its temperature has risen above 40°. Meat, poultry, dairy products, eggs, deli items, pizza, casseroles, soups, stews and other leftovers—they all must go.
  3. Take your food's temperature. If you're still hesitant to throw out food, use an instant-read food thermometer to test the food's internal temperature, which should be 40° F or below.
  4. Toss anything in your freezer that's thawed. You can safely keep items in your freezer for 48 hours if it's full and 24 hours if it's half full as long as you keep the door closed. If ice crystals have formed on your food or its packaging, you can safely refreeze it.
  5. Group frozen foods together in the freezer. Foods stays frozen longer if they're packed closely.
  6. Don't risk a taste test. Tasting or smelling food is no way to decide whether it's okay to eat; most bacteria don't leave an odor or a bad taste.
  7. Don't substitute the great outdoors for your refrigerator. You may think it's a smart idea to keep food cold outside in the snow and ice, but it's not: Even though the outside temperature may be below freezing, the sun warms your food to unsafe and uneven levels. Plus, you risk contamination by animals or unsanitary conditions.
  8. Do go ahead and bring the outdoors in. Keep a cooler on hand so you can pack it with snow or ice and store your food in it.
  9. Make your own ice. Fill containers with water and place them outside to freeze and put in the refrigerator later.
  10. Take action now to stock up on bottled water and non-perishables for later. Keep a three-day supply on hand. Cereal, energy bars, nuts, peanut butter, cans of tuna, apples, bananas, dried fruit mixes, powdered milk and juice containers are all good choices to help get you through a long outage.

Source: Prepared by the Editors of The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter: Health After 50

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 18 Jul 2013

Last Modified: 05 Jan 2015