Chow Line: Food Safety after the Storm

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Our neighborhood lost power after a round of violent storms hit our area and some of our neighbors’ homes were also flooded. Now that the storms are over and the power is coming back on, can we still eat the food in our fridge and freezer?

That depends on how long the power was out, how you managed the food in your refrigerator and freezer while the electricity wasn’t on and whether any of the food or beverages were touched by floodwaters.

If your home was flooded, it is important that you throw away any food that may have come into contact with floodwater. That includes cartons of milk, juice or eggs and any raw vegetables and fruits. In fact, any foods in your home that aren’t in a waterproof container that came into contact with floodwater need to be thrown out.

Floodwater can seep into and contaminate foods packaged in plastic wrap or cardboard and in containers with screw-on caps, snap lids and pull tops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

The best way to avoid the potential for foodborne illness in such cases is to throw away all foods not contained in waterproof packaging – that includes foods in your pantry, cabinets, fridge and freezer that came into contact with floodwater.

Canned goods also need to be inspected for damage due to flooding. Throw away any cans with swelling, leakage, punctures, deep rusting or those that are crushed or severely dented and can’t be opened with a can opener.

Foodborne bacteria can cause illness. Symptoms will occur usually within one to three days of eating the contaminated food. However, symptoms can also occur within 20 minutes or up to 6 weeks later, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In the case of a power outage without flooding, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. If not opened, a refrigerator without power will keep food cold for about four hours. A half-full freezer will hold its temperature for about 24 hours, and for 48 hours if the freezer is full, USDA says.

If the power is out more than four hours, you can store refrigerated foods in a cooler with dry ice or block ice. You can also use dry ice or block ice in the fridge to keep it as cold as possible during an extended power outage, according to FDA.

Other safe food handling tips after a power outage from USDA and FDA include:

  • Check the temperature inside of your refrigerator and freezer. Throw away any perishable food such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs or leftovers that has been above 40 degrees for two hours or more.
  • Check each item separately. Throw away any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture or feels warm to the touch.
  • Check frozen food for ice crystals. The food in your freezer that partially or completely thawed may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is 40 degrees or below.

Remember, when in doubt about the safety of the food item, throw it out – never taste the food to decide if it is safe to eat, USDA says. Refrigerated food should be safe as long as the power was out for no more than four hours and the refrigerator door was kept shut, according to FDA.

Experts agree -- one way to be prepared in the event of an extended power outage is to keep a few days’ worth of ready-to-eat foods that don’t require cooking or cooling. And keep a supply of bottled water stored where it will be safe from floodwaters.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, specialist in Food Safety for Ohio State University Extension

Tracy Turner
For more information, contact: 

Sanja Ilic
OSU Extension, Food Safety