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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

When does food go bad in a power outage? ‘Best to err on the side of caution,’ experts say

Lineman Derrick Lonneker, left, and apprentice Kirk Kubic of International Line Builders, Inc. work on a backyard pole replacement near 28th and Ivory in Spokane last week. The number of area residents without power continues to dwindle, as Avista and contractors from crews such as International Line Builders work to restore power from a destructive windstorm last Wednesday.  (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

When in doubt, throw it out.

That’s the motto federal food safety organizations offer to those deciding whether to keep refrigerated food products after a power outage. The adage is shared by Anna Kestell, who advises caution for safety purposes.

“There’s some stuff that’s savable,” said Kestell, food preservation/safety education coordinator for the Washington State University Spokane County Cooperative Extension. “But for the most part, in your fridge, most everything is going to go.”

Tens of thousands may have faced such quandaries last week after losing power in a windstorm that sent upward of 70-mph gusts across the Inland Northwest.

While some outages lasted several days, four hours is all it takes for temperatures in depowered refrigerators to reach the “danger zone” for many food products, Kestell said.

Bacteria grows most rapidly in temperatures ranging from 40 to 120 degrees, she said. An unopened refrigerator will keep food cold for four hours, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Meanwhile, food in a fully stocked freezer will stay safe for up to 48 hours – or 24 hours in one that is half-stocked.

Kestell said opening fridge or freezer doors to warmer ambient air during an outage shortens that timeframe.

“The best thing, No. 1, is just don’t open the fridge and freezer unless you absolutely have to,” Kestell said.

To toss or not to toss?

Not everything in the fridge or freezer warrants the bin in the event of an outage, however.

Charlie Martin, an instructor with Spokane Community College’s hospitality program, said foods with higher acid contents typically keep better in outage situations.

Guidelines on when to chuck foods at certain temperatures are available at With discarding foods, that recommendation is made for items held above 40 degrees for more than two hours.

Here are some highlights:

Meat/poultry/seafood: Discard raw or leftover products, salads (meat, tuna, shrimp, chicken or egg), lunch meats, gravy, canned hams labeled “keep refrigerated,” pizza with any topping

Cheese: Discard soft, shredded or low-fat cheeses; keep hard, processed or grated cheeses

Dairy: Discard milk, cream, sour cream, buttermilk, evaporated milk, yogurt, eggnog, soymilk or opened baby formula; keep butter and margarine

Eggs: Discard egg products, custards, puddings, quiche

Fruits: Discard cut fruits or sliced/shredded coconut

Sauces: Discard opened mayonnaise, tartar sauce or horseradish if kept above 50 degrees for more than eight hours; discard any fish sauces, opened creamy dressings or opened spaghetti sauce; keep most other products and condiments, including peanut butter, jelly, mustard, ketchup, barbecue sauce, olives and pickles

Bread, pasta, grains: Discard refrigerator biscuits, rolls, cookie dough, cooked pasta/rice/potatoes, pasta salads (with mayonnaise or vinaigrette), fresh pasta and cheesecake; keep waffles, pancakes and bagels

Vegetables: Discard any cut fresh vegetables, cooked vegetables, cooked tofu, opened vegetable juice, baked potatoes, potato salad and pre-cut, pre-washed and packaged greens; keep fresh uncut vegetables and fresh mushrooms, herbs and spices

Best practices

As the federal guidelines are contingent on knowing temperatures, Kestell recommends fridge and freezer thermometers.

Coolers are also recommended, Kestell said. A frozen meat product could substitute for ice, though users should watch for thawing, she said. With freezer items, Kestell said, frozen milk jugs – either half or three-quarters full of water – could serve multiple purposes in an outage.

While it might make sense to store food outside in winter temperatures, Kestell said coolers are still recommended to avoid direct exposure to sunlight.

And for lengthy outages, 50 pounds of dry ice can preserve food stored in a typical 18-cubic-foot freezer for another two days, Kestell said.

Finally, avoid tasting potentially spoiled foods as they might not give off a bad taste or odor, Kestell said. Martin added that labeling foods with dates could help keep track.

But when in doubt…

“Best to err on the side of caution,” he said.