Millions of people in the U.S. are without power due to brutally cold temperatures and a series of winter storms. Even places not usually hit with sustained winter weather, such as Texas, are reeling from the impact of these storms.
Those stuck in the dark without power may wonder what to do with their perishable food in their freezer. With temperatures below freezing, it might be tempting for these folks to try to store their frozen foods in snowbanks or just outside in the cold. While this might sound like a good solution, the United States Department of Agriculture says it could be dangerous.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has specific recommendations on what to do with old and frozen foods in case of a power outage. FSIS makes it clear that sticking food in the snow is not a good substitute for a freezer for a few reasons.
First, air temperatures outside might feel cold, but conditions are not consistent as they are inside of a freezer or refrigerator.
“Frozen food can thaw if it is exposed to the sun’s rays even when the temperature is very cold,” FSIS says. “Refrigerated food may become too warm and food-borne bacteria could grow.”
Another reason to avoid putting your food outside in the snow to keep frozen or cold is to avoid contamination from passing animals.
“Perishable items could be exposed to unsanitary conditions or to animals. Animals may harbor bacteria or disease; never consume food that has come in contact with an animal,” according to the FSIS.
So, what do you do when your power is out and you have food in a non-working freezer or fridge? FSIS recommends making ice with the help of Mother Nature.
“Fill buckets, empty milk cartons, or cans with water and leave them outside to freeze,” the agency said. “Then put the homemade ice in your refrigerator, freezer, or coolers.”
It’s also important to remember that when the power goes out, there’s no need to panic right away about your perishable foods.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as long as you keep the doors closed during a power outage, food in a full freezer will last about 48 hours and 24 hours in a half-full freezer. Refrigerated foods only last about four hours with the doors closed, but their shelf life can be extended by using coolers with ice.
The CDC provides a helpful infographic to make it easy to remember these guidelines, as well as know when to keep your food and when it pitch it.
However, as the saying goes, “When in doubt, throw it out.”