Updated 7/3/12 at noon:
Woo-wee! Five days in without power and at this point, it probably isn’t a good idea to try and keep any food around unless you’ve had it iced down well enough. Please see the food safety information below if you still have questions about that.
Meanwhile, I’m moving up the information about deodorizing your fridge and freezer. I think this is going to be more helpful to everybody at this point.
FOOD SAFETY: REMOVING ODORS FROM REFRIGERATORS & FREEZERS
Refrigerators and freezers are two of the most important pieces of equipment in the kitchen for keeping food safe. We are instantly reminded of their importance when the power goes off, flooding occurs, or the unit fails, causing food to become unsafe and spoil. The odors that develop when food spoils can be difficult to remove. Use this information to learn how to remove odors from units or how to safely discard an affected unit.
To Remove Odors from Refrigerators and Freezers If food has spoiled in a refrigerator or freezer and odors from the food remain, they may be difficult to remove. The following procedures may help but may have to be repeated several times.
. Dispose of any spoiled or questionable food.
. Remove shelves, crispers, and ice trays. Wash them thoroughly with hot water and detergent. Then rinse with a sanitizing solution (1 tablespoon unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water).
. Wash the interior of the refrigerator and freezer, including the door and gasket, with hot water and baking soda. Rinse with sanitizing solution as above.
. Leave the door open for about 15 minutes to allow free air circulation.
If odor remains, try any or all of the following:
. Wipe inside of unit with equal parts vinegar and water. Vinegar provides acid which destroys mildew.
. Leave the door open and allow to air out for several days.
. Stuff both the refrigerator and freezer with rolled newspapers. Close the door and leave for several days. Remove paper and clean with vinegar and water.
. Sprinkle fresh coffee grounds or baking soda loosely in a large, shallow container in the bottom of the refrigerator and freezer.
. Place a cotton swab soaked with vanilla inside the refrigerator and freezer. Close door for 24 hours. Check for odors.
. Use a commercial product available at hardware and housewares stores. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
If Odors Remain
If odors cannot be removed, then the refrigerator or freezer may need to be discarded. If you need to discard the refrigerator or freezer, discard it in a safe manner:
. “Childproof” old refrigerators or freezers so children do not get trapped inside. The surest way is to take the door off.
. If the door will not come off, chain and padlock the door permanently and close tightly, or remove or disable the latch completely so the door will no longer lock when closed.
Updated 4:26 p.m. [7/2/12]:
At this point in the situation (going on 68 hours without power for many of us) please refer ONLY to the information in this latest update on food safety for frozen/refrigerated foods.
I spoke not long ago with Dr. Rob Williams, associate professor of food microbiology at Virginia Tech. Dr. Williams boils down the food safety concerns to a key figure – or magic number, if you prefer: 40 degrees. If your food has been above 40 degrees for more than 2 hours, it is not worth the risk to save it. There are only a few exceptions, which I will share below. Please be very strict about adhering to these rules. I know food costs money, but sitting in a house without air-conditioning is miserable enough without having food poisoning on top of that!
* If you still have food in the fridge, throw it out.
* If you still have food in the freezer (chest freezer or refrigerator freezer) and you want to try to keep it, the thing to do is wait until your power is restored and then IMMEDIATELY take a reliable food thermometer to the freezer and test EVERY item. If it is not below 40 degrees, TRASH IT.
* The same goes for coolers, if you have iced down a bunch of food. Before you eat anything from the cooler OR repack it with more ice, test the temperature of each item to see if it is below 40 degrees. If it is not, TRASH IT.
* If you are keeping foods on ice in a cooler, please be sure the meats are on the BOTTOM of the cooler and that you don’t have items such as lettuce or cheese, which you would eat without cooking, underneath the meats. The potential for meat juices to get on the ready-to-eat foods and contaminate them is too dangerous.
* If food has a strange odor, color or texture or feels warm to the touch, TRASH IT.
The following foods are the only exception to these rules. If they have been over 40 degrees for more than 2 hours, they will likely still be OK to eat (assuming you have not had them sitting out in the sun or they are not moldy). Please note that raw fruits and vegetables that have been cut up should not be saved, only whole, uncut stuff:
Hard cheeses (cheddar, colby, Swiss, Parmesan, provolone, Romano)
Processed cheeses (American, Velveeta)
Grated Parmesan, Romano (in cans or jars)
Butter or margarine
Opened fruit juice (unless it is moldy, yeasty, slimy or smells funny)
Opened canned fruits
Fresh whole (uncut) fruit, coconut, candied fruit, dried fruit
Jelly, relish, taco sauce, mustard, catsup, olives, pickles
Worcestershire, soy, barbecue, hoisin sauces
Opened vinegar-based dressings
Bread, rolls, cakes, muffins, quick breads, tortillas (unless they contain a dairy filling)
Waffles, pancakes, bagels
Fresh mushrooms, herbs and spices
Raw (uncut) vegetables
Flour, cornmeal, nuts
* Note that under “vegetables” it indicates that raw vegetables are safe even if held above 40°F for more than 2 hours. However, this refers to only those vegetables that are whole. Cut vegetables should be discarded. The discard recommendation applies to cut fresh fruits as well.
Frozen Food and Power Outages: When to Save and When to Throw Out
Updated 1:22 p.m. [7/2/12]: The Kroger company just sent out a news release stating that all but three of their impacted stores are still closed. Two of those are in West Virginia and the other in Lynchburg. They also say:
“Some of the 35 stores that have reopened are operating on their own power with a few running on generators brought in to help stores in the interim.
Kroger associates have worked throughout the weekend to discard perishable food and clean cases. ‘We take no chances with food safety,’ said Carl York, spokesman for the Mid-Atlantic region. ‘Customer safety is our number one priority.
‘Perishable food must remain at a safe temperature or it is thrown away,’ added York.
York said associates are working around the clock to restock stores with fresh products to meet the needs of customers. ‘We continue to replenish ice, dry ice and water among other key items that are needed by our customers,’ he said. ‘We know our customers are suffering in the extreme heat without power, and we are doing everything we can to get our stores back in top condition for their convenience.
‘We appreciate the extra effort of our associates who are putting the needs of our customers first,’ York said. We are proud of them.
Updated 11:34 a.m. [7/2/12]: Here are some tips for what foods might be safe to keep. All info from Virginia Cooperative Extension and US Department of Agriculture and Food Safety and Inspection Service.
* Never taste a food to determine its safety!
* Food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40 °F or below.
* If the power has been out for several days, then check the temperature of the freezer with an appliance thermometer or food thermometer. If the food still contains ice crystals or is at 40 °F or below, the food is safe.
* If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, then check each package of food to determine its safety. If the food still contains ice crystals, the food is safe.
* Discard refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers, and deli items after 4 hours without power.
If you have been able to keep the following foods REFRIGERATOR cool, they are still a safe bet:
* Hard cheeses
* Pasteurized cheeses
* Grated hard cheeses (Romano, Parmesan) in a can or jar
* Butter or margarine
* Fruit juices, opened
* Canned fruits, opened
* Fresh whole fruits, coconut, raisins, dried fruits, candied fruits, dates
* Peanut butter
* Jelly, relish, taco sauce, mustard, catsup, olives, pickles Worcestershire, soy, barbecue, Hoisin sauces
* Opened vinegar-based dressings
* Bread, rolls, cakes, muffins, quick breads, tortillas
* Breakfast foods – waffles, pancakes, bagels
* Pies, fruit
* Fresh mushrooms, herbs, spices
* Vegetables, raw, whole
If you get power back on and these previously frozen foods are still at 40 degrees or contain ice crystals, you may either refreeze them or eat them now:
Out-of-shell eggs or egg products
Hard, soft or semi-soft Cheese (may lose some texture quality)
Breads, rolls, muffins, cakes w/o custard filling
Pie crusts (quality loss might be high though)
Flour, cornmeal, nuts
Waffles, pancakes, bagels
When we woke up on our mattress next to the cat box in the basement this morning, we had reached 58 hours without power at our house in Northwest Roanoke. If you are like us, chances are you spent some time this weekend scrambling to save food in your refrigerator and freezer. You also probably spent time, as did we, filling a trash bag full of what had been perfectly good food and throwing it away before your kitchen started to smell like a dumpster.
It’s heartbreaking to waste so much, but still just a small worry among the many larger concerns still out there today. I feel very fortunate to have suffered no physical injury and no damage to any structures or vehicles at my house and the houses of my family in Bath and Alleghany counties. I hope you all made it through relatively unscathed aside from the power outages, and that you have been able to help others if you never lost your power.
I’m going to share some links to information about food safety in case of power outages, but frankly if your power is still out and you have not moved food to another person’s fridge or freezer, or iced it down really well, it’s long lost by now. I’m going to try and get some more specifics on items that might still be OK and update this blog later today. For example, I wonder if things with high vinegar or salt content, such as hot sauce and soy sauce, will still be OK to keep. For now, operate under the assumption that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Foodsafety.gov: Is food in the refrigerator safe during a power outage? It should be safe as long as power is out no more than 4 hours. Keep the door closed as much as possible. Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and leftovers) that have been above 40 °F for over 2 hours.
Never taste food to determine its safety! You can’t rely on appearance or odor to determine whether food is safe.
Centers for Disease Control: Lots of tips on how to determine whether your food is safe to eat.
How did you deal with the food spoilage issue this weekend? Were you able to move some to a friend’s fridge or freezer? Did you buy bags and bags of ice to try and keep some things cold? Did you end up sadly throwing away a ton of food, or grilling all the meat you had and having a major binge-fest in an effort to at least not waste it all?
Above all, I hope you are all finding a way to stay cool today and being careful. Don’t forget to check on elderly neighbors.