Extension@YourService: Don’t Let Your Refrigerator Be a Danger Zone

— Written By and last updated by Leeann Crump
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This Saturday morning started, like any other, with coffee. As I placed the creamer back into the refrigerator, I noticed the bottle was covered in condensation. Odd. I closed the door and checked the temperature of my refrigerator; 55°F. Wow. Refrigerators should be kept at 40°F or below for proper food storage. Panic set in and I thought to myself “I’m going to have to throw everything away!”

Foodborne illness is a serious danger when foods are not kept at proper temperatures and could potentially result in death. When food is 41°F to 140°F it is in what is known as the danger zone. At temperatures within this range, bacteria can double every 20 minutes. Despite these grim circumstances, this doesn’t mean everything in the refrigerator needs to be tossed when the power goes out or, in my case, the appliance stops working. As long as the power is out no more than 4 hours and the door is kept closed as much as possible, food should still be safe. After 2 hours, any perishable food that has been above 40°F should be tossed. This includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and leftovers – even pizza! Things you can keep include butter and margarine, hard and processed cheeses, raw vegetables, fresh and dried fruits and opened fruit juices. Most sauces, spreads, and jams can be safe if held above 40°F for over 2 hours. Most items in the freezer, not including ice cream and frozen yogurt, can be refrozen if it still contains ice crystals and feels as cold as if refrigerated. However, if thawed and held above 40°F for over 2 hours, food items should be discarded.

For a complete list of refrigerated and frozen food lists after power outages, visit www.foodsafety.gov or call your local Richmond County Cooperative Extension office at 910-997-8255.

With storm season upon us, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has prepared a list of things you can do to keep food safe during power outages:

Be Prepared

  • Have a refrigerator thermometer.
  • Know where you can get dry ice.
  • Keep on hand a few days’ worth of ready-to-eat foods that do not require cooking or cooling, which depend on electricity.

When the Power Goes Out

  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible.
  • The refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours if it is unopened.
  • Refrigerators should be kept at 40° F or below for proper food storage.

Once the Power is Restored

  • Check the temperature inside of your refrigerator and freezer.
  • If an appliance thermometer was kept in the freezer, check the temperature when the power comes back on. If the freezer thermometer reads 40° F or below, the food is safe and may be refrozen.
  • If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, check each package of food to determine its safety. You can’t rely on appearance or odor. If the food still contains ice crystals or is 40° F or below, it is safe to refreeze or cook.
  • Refrigerated food should be safe as long as the power was out for no more than 4 hours. Keep the door closed as much as possible.
  • Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs or leftovers) that has been above 40° F for two hours or more.

Even if you are just getting up in the morning to have coffee, it is important to keep watch over your appliances for proper food storage temperatures. It can save you a trip to the store, and to the hospital.

The Richmond County Cooperative Extension’s goal is to provide the residents of the community with research-based knowledge. For more information on food safety, health, wellness, and nutrition please contact the Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, Janice Roberts, MS at 910-997-8255.