Be Ready Just in Case

— Written By

N.C. Cooperative Extension Family and Consumer Sciences Column originally written for the Brunswick Beacon August 29, 2018

by: Cheryle Jones Syracuse
Family and Consumer Science Staff
N.C. Cooperative Extension
Brunswick County Center

I originally wrote parts of this column several years ago when everyone in Brunswick County was busy preparing for Hurricane Irene. Fortunately we were spared major damage from that storm. But, I thought it might be a good idea to share this information again, before we’re all in a hurry to get things just done before another storm.

There are lots of hurricane preparation lists out there and I hope everyone has one they heed each year. I’m adding a couple items related to food safety to the list of things to have on hand. I don’t always see these on other supply lists, but they would be helpful if the power goes out. Get yourself a couple freezer and refrigerator thermometers (these are good to have all year round, not just in an emergency). Place a thermometer in both the freezer and refrigerator. This way you can tell the temperature the inside these appliances. Also get a tip-sensitive digital food thermometer like they use in restaurants. This will allow you to check the actual temperature of the food. The best and most accurate way to determine if
food left in the fridge or freezer is safe to eat is to know its temperature. Food kept below 41 degrees is safe.

I know I’ve seen several ideas on the internet about putting a cup of water in the freezer, allowing it to freeze and then putting a coin on top of the ice. The idea is that if the ice melts and the coin sinks you’ll know that the power was out and the temperature in the freezer warmed. This would be good if you weren’t home or had to evacuate. It’s a good concept, but I haven’t seen any research that can give us any details on how effective this is would really be. Unfortunately it can only tell you that the ice melted (which you can probably tell by your ice cubes and ice cream,) it can’t tell you the actual temp inside the freezer. There are lots of variables to determine if the food is safe, but in most cases, if the ice melted, and you weren’t
around to take the actual temperature, you’d probably have to pitch most of the food.

All the hurricane prep lists suggest having a supply of food that doesn’t require refrigeration. These could be items like whole non-cut fruits and vegetables, canned products, peanut butter, dry goods like crackers and cookies. Also think of foods that can be eaten cold or heated on an outdoor grill. But don’t forget, once canned items are opened or fruits and vegetables are cut they should be kept cold.

If the power goes out, the “rule of thumb” is to keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperatures. You can take action before a storm by filling any excess space in your refrigerator or freezer with containers of water. This will give you ice or drinking water down the road and will also help keep food in that appliance cold. In hot summer weather you can’t rely on the “keep the door” closed method for a long time. If the power goes out, you should check the temperature in the refrigerator after four hours. If it’s getting close to being over 41 degrees, you need to make some decisions about that food.

The same rule applies to the freezer. With the door closed, food in most freezers will stay below41 degrees about 3 days. Thawing rate depends upon the amount of food in the freezer, the kind of food, the temperature of the food (turn the temperature down as low as possible ahead of time) and the size and insulation of the freezer. Obviously, the freezer in your refrigerator isn’t going to keep as long as a stand-alone deep freeze. After a day or two without power, you’re going to need to break the rule of “keeping the door closed” and check the temperature inside the freezer and see if some of the food is defrosting. Also, make sure you know what the temperature was inside the freezer when the power comes back on. This will allow you to correctly determine what is safe to eat or refreeze. You may
safely refreeze most foods that still contain ice crystals or have been kept at 41 degrees or below.

I hope you don’t need to use this information on food safety, but it’s always good to be prepared.

Source: NC State University Emergency Preparedness fact sheets and Food Safety Info Sheet: Recovering from a Storm, Frozen Food, by Benjamin
Chapman, Ph.D., Food Safety Specialist, N.C. Cooperative Extension