So this is not a fun topic to talk about. I hate food waste and try to do my best to use as much as I can or compost what I can't. But sometimes things happen and we have to be smart and safe with our food. It's wildfire season in California. It's natural and they can happen anywhere, but to help reduce human cause the energy company (PG&E) has been cutting power to reduce the risk. This only happens on high risk days like when it's super dry and windy. We have had two so far this year and there could be at least one or two more so I wanted to talk about food safety if it happens to you. This can also be used for any area that can lose power. It may be a snow storm, a thunderstorm, or just some high winds knocked down a line. It's best to be safe and knowledgeable on what can last and what can't.
First let's talk about refrigeration and freezing. The typical fridge has multiple options for the exact temp but I will say it's best to invest in a thermometer or check it often to ensure the temp is at a safe spot. Refrigerated items need to be kept at or below 40℉ for it to be deemed safe, freezers should be 0℉ but I like mine a couple degrees lower. As you open and close the door the temperature will fluctuate but in general it should stay here. At these temps, a fridge should hold for 2 hours and a freezer for 24 hours. This also depends on how much stuff is in it since more things will keep the temp down longer. It also depends on the age and quality of the fridge. A new one will hold temp better than one 10 years old.
When you lose your power it will be a huge personal judgement on what to keep and what to toss. Make sure to keep the doors closed as much as possible and wait a day or so before doing anything in hopes the power comes back. When it does it's time to make some choices and see what is still good or not. I'm going to talk in categories both in the freezer and fridge to better find answers if you need to refer back to this information.
Meats of all Types:
Meat is a hard category. Most likely it will all be tossed. Any raw meat or seafood that was kept in the fridge I would toss after a couple hours without power. Frozen meats should be fine as long as they still feel cold and have not come to room temp but if they aren't super cold be safe and toss them. Things like cured meat and deli meat I might keep if it hasn't been too long and they are still slightly cold but the food safety department would say to toss everything that is or contains meat. If you don't know 100%, just toss. It can easily get you sick and we don't want that.
Dairy, Cheeses, and Eggs:
Similar to meats, a lot of this will be tossed if it's been awhile without power. Any milk, cream, or cultured milk and creams are typically tossed. I always check fermented ones like sour cream or buttermilk and make my own judgement. They might be usable for another day or so but don't keep to the expiration date. Butter on the other hand you can most likely keep. As a baker, I love butter that has been out all night and is super soft so kept in a closed fridge without power it's okay.
Cheese you should also look at through the how it's made lens. Softer cheeses like mozzarella, ricotta, brie, queso fresco, cottage, and cream cheese are fresh cheeses and can spoil easily. Toss them. Also toss anything shredded that isn't Parmesan or Romano. Those two are safe for awhile once shredded but any other cheese that's already shredded has a lot of small spaces for bacteria or mold to grow and should be thrown away. Harder cheeses most likely can be kept after a power outage. Ones like cheddar, swiss, parm, and provolone are aged to be made and can be safer if the fridge turns off. Many artisan cheese shops keep them at a warmer temp since that's how a lot are meant to be enjoyed.
Lastly eggs, which is mostly up to a test. The food safety department says to toss all of them but you can do a simple water test and see for yourself. If the egg sits on it's side in water then it is okay to use. Sitting up right it's getting old. Floating is a bad egg and should be tossed. At the end of the day we are one of the only countries that doesn't leave eggs at room temp so I don't worry as much with this one. Now if it's an egg containing product (e.g. quiche, custards, cheesecake) toss it. They won't be cooked again so it's best to get rid of them than risk illness.
Fruits and Veggies:
Fruits and veggies mostly come down to prepared or not prepared. Anything that is uncooked and not already cut up can be kept. Most are bought like that in the store. Once they are cut up and stored or cooked and stored there can be some issues and they should be tossed. Any frozen produce can be kept as long as they haven't thawed. if they thaw they may have to go since they will hold more moisture and can mold faster.
Breads, Cakes, and Other Baked Goods:
As long as its cooked it's safe to keep. Any raw dough should be tossed since it can harbor bacteria. If you were in the middle of making bread you may be able to save it but any cookie dough or store bought biscuit or rolls dough should be tossed.
If your baked goods are frozen they can be refrozen even if they have thawed. Just make sure if they have an extra moisture that you clean up to avoid frost bite on any parts. If you keep nuts in the freezer like me they should be good as well. Just because you freeze it does not mean it can't be at a warmer temp especially if its bought or typically kept at room temp in the store.
Condiments and Sauces:
This really comes down to what it is. Ones that are high is acidity or sugar such as pickles, jams, mustard, ketchup, relish, soy sauce, barbecue, etc. are safe to keep. Any dressing that is high in vinegar and not creamy is also safe. If any sauce or dressing has a creaminess don't risk it. Also avoid tomato sauces, they are a huge issue in terms of storage. Ones like mayo can technically be kept at higher temps. The food safety department says it can be kept for 8 hours above 50℉ before it needs to be tossed. Always double check and see if it smells off or looks discolored before using.
At the end of the day it's always a slight risk. You don't know exactly the temp the foods are kept at and how long so every situation is going to be different. Never test something by taste because that automatically puts danger in your system. If you are not sure just toss to be safe. Food can be dangerous but I also feel there's a bigger fear surrounding it than needs to be. Much of this information is through health departments and the food safety department. Check out the link below to see exactly what they suggest. I hope this helps many out to save some waste and money when the power goes out. Make sure to use your best judgement. Feel free to reach out with questions as well.