After The Storm: What You Can Save and What You Must Throw Out



After a power outage, the big food-related question is this: "What perishable foods must be discarded because of possible contamination, and what's safe to keep?"  Here are some guidelines:


First, check the temperature in your fridge and freezer. If both are still at 40°F or below, you’ve spared yourself a hefty throw-out session.


Second, always remember the “If in doubt, throw it out” rule. Food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter says, “The general rule of thumb is that if the perishable item is sitting at 40°F for more than two hours, get rid of it.” DO NOT taste food to see if it’s still good to eat. Some foods may look and smell fine, but bacteria able to cause food-borne illness can begin to multiply very rapidly. Some types of bacteria will produce toxins which are not destroyed by ordinary cooking temperatures and can possibly cause illness."


Refrigerated food should be safe if the power was off no more than 4 hours.  Longer than that, most of the contents should be discarded. A USDA Fact Sheet contains a long list of specific foods that are safe or unsafe if held above 40°F for more than 2 hours.  Here are some examples of items that can be saved even if held above 40°F for more than 2 hours:


Refrigerator Foods:

  • Bakery items and grains: Keep cakes, bagels, bread, fruit pies, muffins, pancakes, pies, quick breads, rolls, tortillas, and waffles. 
  • Discard casseroles, cookie dough, cooked pasta, cooked potatoes, cooked rice, quiche, and pies with custard, cheese, or chiffon.
  • Cheeses:  Keep hard cheeses (such as Cheddar, Colby, Swiss, Parmesan, Provolone, Romano), processed cheeses, and grated cheeses (Parmesan and Romano) in a can or jar. 
    • Discard soft cheeses.
  • Condiments, Herbs & Spices, Spreads: Keep fresh herbs and spices, mustard, ketchup, olives, pickles, peanut butter, jelly, relish, and taco sauce.
    • Discard these if over 50°F more than 8 hours: opened mayonnaise
  • Dairy: Keep butter and margarine. Discard milk and eggs.
  • Fruits & Vegetables: Keep coconut, candied fruits, dates, dried fruits, fresh mushrooms, fresh whole fruits, opened canned fruits, opened fruit juices, raisins, and raw whole vegetables. 
    • Discard cooked vegetables.
  • Sauces & Dressings: Keep barbeque sauce, hoisin sauce, opened vinegar-based dressings, soy sauce, and worcestershire sauce.
    • Discard these if over 50°F more than 8 hours: opened creamy-based dressings, opened horseradish, and opened tartar sauce.


Freezer Foods:

  • Bakery items and grains: Refreeze bagels, breads, cakes without custard fillings, commercial and homemade bread dough (though quality loss is considerable), flour, muffins, pancakes, pie crusts (though quality loss is considerable), rolls, waffles
  • Cheeses:  Refreeze hard cheeses
  • Fruits & Vegetables: Refreeze fruit juices- discard if mold, yeasty smell, or sliminess develops.  Refreeze home or commercially packaged fruits- discard if mold, yeasty smell, or sliminess develops.  
    • Discard vegetable juices if held above 40°F for 6 hours.
    • Discard home or commercially packaged or blanched vegetables if held above 40°F for 6 hours.
  • Other: Refreeze cornmeal, flour, and nuts.


For an additional list of items not covered, click here.


In deciding which thawed foods to save and which to discard, you need to consider both quality and safety.  The following additional tips on handling thawed foods come from Pennsylvania State University's Extension food scientists:


  • Generally, food can be refrozen IF the temperature of the product has always been 40°F or lower, the color and odor are good, and the product shows no other signs of spoilage. 
  • You can refreeze creamed foods, pudding, and cream pies ONLY if the temperature was never above 40°F.
  • Throw out partially thawed ice cream; the texture will be unacceptable after thawing and refreezing.


When discarding food that may be contaminated, be sure to wrap it well and cover the garbage can tightly so that wild animals or your neighbors' pets can't get at it.


Water safety:

After any major storm, it is important to listen to your local radio or television station for official announcements about the safety of drinking water. If your community has experienced a major storm or disaster, it is advisable to consider all water from your public water system to be unsafe until tested. Indicators of contaminated water supplies include water that is dark in color, has an odor, or contains floating material.


If the water is contaminated, use your emergency supply or continue to purchase bottled water until the water is tested and deemed to be safe. If purchasing bottled water is not an option, and the question of water purity still exists, there are numerous water treatment techniques that you can carry out from the comfort of your kitchen. For more information on water treatment methods, visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention here.  Also consult this site's article "Tips on Water Safety During and After the Storm." 


Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Deodorizing the Fridge and Freezer:

You’ve thrown out spoiled food, rectified your drinking water issues, and are now ready to return to a sense of normalcy, or are you? If food has spoiled in your fridge or freezer, it is advisable to clean and sanitize both before restocking. You can sanitize with bleach water (1 tablespoon of bleach in a gallon of water) or use those handy disinfectant wipes. For a step--by-step procedure on cleaning the fridge, click here


To eliminate unwelcomed odors, remove all items, and wash the inside of the fridge and/or freezer by using one tablespoon of baking soda in a quart of tap water. Alternatively, you can use one cup of vinegar in a gallon of tap water. Let the surface dry completely before replacing food in the fridge.


If the odor persists, use activated charcoal that can be purchased from your local supermarket or drugstore. This type of charcoal absorbs odors more quickly than cooking-type charcoal. To use it, you must unplug the fridge or freezer and place the charcoal in a pan at the bottom of fridge or freezer for several days (or until the odor is gone). Once the odor is gone, rinse and dry the inside of the fridge or freezer and turn it on.

To help you prepare for future weather-related disasters, consult "How to Protect Your Food During a Power Outage," and "Tips on Water Safety During and After a Storm." These articles emphasize what to do before and during an outage to protect your food supply and yourself.




Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Center for Disease Control & Prevention


Clemson Home & Garden Information Center


United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service



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