By:  Jory D. Lange, Jr.

Blizzards and snow storms are a cause for concern for anyone. Food preservation is especially concerning. This week, as 18 million Americans from eastern Pennsylvania to southern Maine were under severe weather warnings, many have found themselves wondering how they can preserve their food to keep their family fed and safe. As Americans in the Northeast brace for Winter Storm Stella, we at UnsafeFoods have some simple food safety tips to bear in mind to help anyone who finds themselves in a winter storm.

During Winter Storm Stella

Sometimes people are tempted to put perishable food in the snow, to keep it cool.  But the experts at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) say this can be dangerous.  Freezers keep food safe by keeping it at a constant temperature at 0°F or below.  Refrigerators keep food safe by keeping it at a constant temperature of 40°F or below.  Snow cannot be relied upon to provide constant temperature or clean environment.  Even when it is very cold, frozen food can thaw out when it is exposed to sunlight.  The USDA cautions that, “Outside temperatures can vary and food can be exposed to unsanitary conditions and animals.  Instead, make ice by filling buckets or cans with water and leave them outside to freeze.  Use this ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator or coolers.”

If Your Power Goes Out

Winter Storm Stella may leave many Americans in the Northeast without power.  If your power goes out, the USDA recommends that you:

  • “Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. A refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours if the door is kept closed.  A full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours (24 hours if half-full).”
  • “Place meat and poultry to one side of the freezer or on a tray to prevent cross contamination of thawing juices.”
  • “Use dry or block ice to keep the refrigerator as cold as possible during an extended power outage. Fifty pounds of dry ice should keep a fully-stocked 18-cubic-feet freezer cold for two days.”

After Stella Passes

Once the storm passes, you need to assess the condition of your remaining food.  The USDA advises that you:

  • “Check the temperature inside of your refrigerator and freezer. Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs or leftovers) that has been above 40°F for two hours or more.”
  • “Check each item separately. Throw out 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°F or below.”
  • “Never state a food to decide if it’s safe.”
  • “When in doubt, throw it out.”

 USDA Guidelines

The USDA recommends that these refrigerated foods be thrown out when they have been held above 40°F for more than two hours:

  • Poultry, Meat, and Seafood:
    • Raw poultry, meat, or seafood;
    • Cooked leftover poultry, meat, or seafood;
    • Thawing poultry;
    • Thawing meat;
    • Egg salad, chicken salad, shrimp salad, tuna salad, and meat salad;
    • Broth, gravy, stuffing;
    • Hot dogs, lunchmeat, bacon, dried beef, and sausage;
    • Pizza;
    • Any canned hams marked with “Keep Refrigerated”; and
    • Opened canned fish or canned meat.
  • Cheese:
    • Soft cheeses such as blue cheese, Brie, Camembert, cottage cheese, cream cheese, Edam, mozzarella, Muenster, Neufchatel, queso blanco, queso fresco, Roquefort.
    • Low-fat cheeses; and
    • Shredded cheeses.
  • Dairy Products:
    • Milk, soy milk, evaporated milk, buttermilk, yogurt, cream, sour cream, and eggnog; and
    • Any opened baby formula.
  • Eggs:
    • Fresh eggs, egg products, egg dishes, and eggs hard-cooked in their shells; and
    • Puddings and custards containing eggs.
  • Stews
  • Soups
  • Casseroles
  • Fruits:
    • Cut fresh fruits.
    • Cooked leftover poultry, meat, or seafood
    • Raw or leftover cooked soy meat substitutes

The USDA recommends that these refrigerated foods be thrown out when they have been held above 50°F for more than eight hours:

  • Jams, Spreads, and Sauces:
    • Fish sauces such as oyster sauce;
    • Opened creamy-based dressings; and
    • Opened jars of spaghettis sauce.
  • Bread, Cakes, Cookies, Grains, and Pastas:
    • Cookie dough, rolls, and biscuits;
    • Cooked pasta, potatoes, and rice;
    • Mayonnaise or vinaigrette-based pasta salads;
    • Fresh pasta; and
  • Pastries and Pies:
    • Cream filled pastries;
    • Custard pies;
    • Cheese filled pies;
    • Chiffon pies; and
  • Vegetables:
    • Pre-cut greens, pre-washed greens, and packaged greens;
    • Cooked vegetables;
    • Opened vegetable juices;
    • Baked potatoes;
    • Commercial garlic in oil;
    • Potato salad; and

The USDA recommends that these frozen foods be thrown out when they have thawed and/or held above been held above 40°F for more than two hours:

  • Poultry, Meat, Seafood:
    • Beef, ground meat, lamb, pork, and veal;
    • Poultry;
    • Ground poultry;
    • Variety meets such as chitterlings, heart, kidney and liver;
    • Stews, soups, and casseroles;
    • Breaded seafood products;
    • Shellfish; and
  • Dairy Products:
    • Milk;
    • Eggs (when out of shell) and/or egg products;
    • Ice cream;
    • Frozen yogurt;
    • Shredded cheeses;
    • Casseroles that contain eggs, cream, soft cheeses or milk; and
  • Fruits:
    • Fruit juices ¾ FDA recommends that these products be refrozen. But if there is mold, a yeasty smell, or slime develops, throw these away.
    • Home packaged or commercially packaged fruits ¾ FDA recommends that these products be refrozen. But if there is mold, a yeasty smell, or slime develops, throw these away.
  • Vegetables:
    • Vegetable juices ¾ Throw these away if they have been held above 40°F for 6 hours.
    • Home packaged or commercially packaged vegetables ¾ Throw these away if they have been held above 40°F for 6 hours.
  • Breads and Pastries:
    • Cakes, cheese filled pastries, custard pastries, and pies.
  • Casseroles:
    • Pasta casseroles; and
    • Rice based casseroles.
  • Frozen meals.

Additional Resources

For more information, check out the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s video “Food Safety During Power Outages” on YouTube.   American Sign Language speakers can access this information through the ASL version of this video with the same title on YouTube. UnsafeFoods also has a handy, quick video that you can watch here about keeping your family safe in the event of a natural disaster.

Before the Next Storm

Preparation is key in instances such as these. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has put together a booklet, “Preparing for a Weather Emergency”.  You can access the FDA’s booklet here.

Winter Storm Stella

Weather.com is providing continuing coverage of Winter Storm Stella.