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How long, really, is refrigerated food safe after a power outage?

I see many many sites, including the CDC, foodsafety.gov, usdairy.com, etc., that tell me which foods are safe to keep and which need to be tossed, *after four hours* with no refrigeration. I do not see a single site that tells me what to do if the food that was “safe” after four hours has now gone 24 hours with no power. Some of my questions are: unopened cheddar cheese, thickly grated Parmesan, an open package of tortillas, the jar of olives that is opened, and basically everything in the freezer, since I was out of town and not there to check for ice crystals.

What a nice day to give the fridge a thorough cleaning! 🙁

P.S., I will not be trying any of these foods but am not tossing the ones I have questions about until I resolve the question. No need to kill myself because I want to save a few dollars!

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  • Comments (7)

    • 5

      A lot depends on the ambient temperature of the room, the mass and temperature of the food contained within the freezer/refrigerator and the quality of the insulation used in the construction of the refrigerator.

      Some foods such as chicken or shell fish should definitely be discarded if they have partially thawed and refrozen. Hard cheeses such as the ones you mention (and other hard fats) are less critical and will last unrefrigerated for several days in temperate places. (Soft fats, milk and cottage cheese will smell noticeably bad if they’re off) If the olives are still submerged in water/brine and not drained that will retard bacterial growth.

      Having said all that that if you live somewhere hot then bacterial growth is likely to be far faster.

    • 5

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      It’s crude, but take a water bottle and freeze it upside down. Then place right side up as shown in the above picture. If my freezer ever loses power while I am out and gets warm enough to melt the ice, it will fall to the bottom and the air bubble will then be at the top. 

      Plus, it acts like a little ice block to give off coolness to the rest of the freezer and help keep temps low during a long term power outage. 

      For more adventures in my freezer…

      Another tip, at least for my fridge and freezer, there are areas which are cooler than others. For example, right in the back by the cooling element is colder than near the bottom front right corner of the fridge that is furthest away from the cooling element and also near the constantly opening and closing door. We used to store our cheese in this warmer spot just because it fit nicely near there but noticed that it would often mold before the expiration date. Since moving the cheese to the top back area of the fridge, we haven’t lost one to mold yet. So store lunch meat, cheese, and other more perishable items near the cooling element, and things like fruit, vegetables, or tortillas in the other areas.

      • 4

        I have a similar idea to Jay with a plastic fruit cup full of frozen water. I have a penny sitting on the top, if the power goes off while I’m away the penny will be at the bottom or part way down.

      • 1

        Oh! I love that idea. Much easier to see a penny either at the bottom or half way through the ice. 

    • 5

      Tortillas? LOL, we keep ours on the counter! 😛

      • 1

        That would be a good test. One tortilla on the counter and one in the fridge and see which lasts longer. I put mine in the fridge.

    • 2

      Unfortunately no site is really going to post things that contradict CDC or USDA because of liability.

      I wouldn’t hesitate to eat hard cheeses (in blocks, grated doesn’t last as long and you can’t just cut away the mold), tortillas would be just fine and don’t need to be refrigerated. Olives, pickles, jalapeños, most sauces are fine. Dairy, of course, would be a concern as would any refrigerated meats.

      Use it as an experiment: look for mold, smell them, look at texture. Learn now, while it’s safe and you do have options so you can be better prepared. There may be a time when you don’t have the same easy option of just throwing it away and buying new. 

      If you have chickens or other barnyard animals give the old stuff to them!

      Also if your refrigerator and/or freezer were kept close they can stay cold for a while. Maybe try another experiment and put a temperature prob in your freezer and see how cold it gets, and even try unplugging it and monitoring the probe and see how long it stays below 32 degrees? (Our large chest freezer, for example, stays at about 5 degrees and will stay below 32 for over 84 hours.)

      I like the penny in frozen ice idea!

      • 3

        Trace, good idea about running those tests with literally (almost) nothing in the freezer or fridge. I am definitely going to do the penny trick Jay pointed out. First time I have heard of that.