USDA Food Safety Tips for Areas Affected by Winter Storm Warnings

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is issuing food safety recommendations for the northern Rockies and upper Great Lakes due to the forecast for severe winter conditions.

The National Weather Service predicted heavy snow from Montana to Michigan. The first snow fell in North Dakota on Sunday. Snow will continue through South Dakota and central Minnesota during the day while expanding eastward across northern Wisconsin and into Michigan in the afternoon. The storm is expected to bring high winds and snow. This type of weather forecast presents the possibility of power outages that could compromise the safety of stored food.

FSIS recommends that consumers take the following steps to reduce food waste and the risk of foodborne illness during severe weather events.

Steps to follow if the power goes out:

  • Keep appliance thermometers in both the refrigerator and the freezer to ensure temperatures remain food safe during a power outage. Safe temperatures are 40°F or lower in the refrigerator, 0°F or lower in the freezer.
  • Freeze water in one-quart plastic storage bags or small containers prior to a storm. These containers are small enough to fit around the food in the refrigerator and freezer to help keep food cold. Remember, water expands when it freezes so don’t overfill the containers.
  • Freeze refrigerated items, such as leftovers, milk and fresh meat and poultry that you may not need immediately—this helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.
  • Know where you can get dry ice or block ice.
  • Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerator food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours.
  • Group foods together in the freezer—this ‘igloo’ effect helps the food stay cold longer.
  • Avoid putting food outside in ice or snow, because it attracts wild animals or could thaw when the sun comes out.
  • Keep a few days’ worth of ready-to-eat foods that do not require cooking or cooling.
  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. A refrigerator will keep food cold for about four 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.

Steps to follow after a weather emergency:

  • 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 taste a food to decide if it’s safe.
  • When in doubt, throw it out.

FSIS’ YouTube video “Food Safety During Power Outages” has instructions for keeping frozen and refrigerated food safe. The publication “A Consumer’s Guide to Food Safety: Severe Storms and Hurricanes” can be downloaded and printed for reference during a power outage.

Consumers with food safety questions can “Ask Karen,” the FSIS virtual representative available 24 hours a day at www.AskKaren.gov. Mobile Ask Karen can also be downloaded from the Apple and Android app stores. Consumers can e-mail, chat with a live representative or call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline directly from the app. To use these features from Mobile Ask Karen, simply choose “Contact Us” from the menu. The live chat option and the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), are available on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET.