As a winter storm threatens to blanket the East Coast with up to 18 inches of snow today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is reminding consumers to keep their food safe if the power goes out in their homes. Some might think that a power outage in winter may not affect food safety as much as one in hurricane season, but that’s not the case, says Maria Olmedo-Malagon, director of food safety education at FSIS. “You have to keep food safe no matter what the weather is outside,” she told Food Safety News. Even if your house loses its heating when the power goes out, it won’t immediately fall to the 40 degrees F necessary for preserving your food. Olmedo-Malagon recommends moving as much food as possible from your refrigerator to your freezer ahead of the storm, “because the more food you have in the freezer, the longer it will keep cold.” A full freezer can probably keep for two days, she said, but the food in the fridge will only last four hours in the best of circumstances. If the power has been out for four hours, or the temperature inside your fridge is above 40 degrees F, it may be tempting to put some food out in the snow, but Olmedo-Malagon said this is really not the best idea because you can’t control the environment. The main concern is that pets and wild animals could tamper with it. FSIS has tips for how to assess perishable foods once the electricity is back on, but ultimately, Olmedo-Malagon says, “When in doubt, throw it out.”, The full list of USDA food safety tips for areas affected by snowstorms is below. Steps to follow if the power goes out:

  • Keep appliance thermometers in both the refrigerator and the freezer to ensure that temperatures remain food safe during a power outage. Safe temperatures are 40 degrees F or lower in the refrigerator and 0 degrees F or lower in the freezer.
  • Freeze water in one-quart plastic storage bags or small containers prior to a storm. These containers are small enough to fit in around the food in the refrigerator and freezer to help keep food cold. Remember, water expands when it freezes, so don’t overfill the containers.
  • Freeze refrigerated items, such as leftovers, milk and fresh meat and poultry that you may not need immediately — this helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.
  • Know where you can get dry ice or block ice.
  • Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerated food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours.
  • Group foods together in the freezer — this “igloo” effect helps the food stay cold longer.
  • Avoid putting food outside in ice or snow because it attracts wild animals or could thaw when the sun comes out.
  • Keep a few days’ worth of ready-to-eat foods that do not require cooking or cooling.
  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. A refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours if the door is kept closed. A full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours (24 hours if half-full).
  • Place meat and poultry to one side of the freezer or on a tray to prevent cross-contamination of thawing juices.
  • Use dry or block ice to keep the refrigerator as cold as possible during an extended power outage. Fifty pounds of dry ice should keep a fully stocked 18-cubic-feet freezer cold for two days.

Steps to follow after a weather emergency:

  • Check the temperature inside of your refrigerator and freezer. Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs or leftovers) that has been above 40 degrees F for two hours or more.
  • Check each item separately. Throw out any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture or feels warm to the touch.
  • Check frozen food for ice crystals. The food in your freezer that has partially or completely thawed may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is 40 degrees F or below.
  • Never taste a food to decide if it’s safe.
  • When in doubt, throw it out.

FSIS also recommends that consumers download and print their guide to food safety during severe storms and hurricanes for reference during a power outage.