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Food safety in weather emergencies can happen at unexpected times with little time to react. Snow, ice, hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, or fires are just a few of the weather emergencies that can occur. It’s important for every business that operates with perishable food to have a plan for food safety in weather emergencies, assuming that it’s safe to do so. Your plan should include how to minimize food losses and foodborne illnesses if the power of your walk-in cooler or freezer is compromised.

Steps to Follow to Prep for a Weather Emergency

While you can’t prevent inclement weather, you can do your best to prepare for it. Here are some steps you can consider:

  • Keep an appliance thermometer in your walk-in cooler or freezer, which will continue to operate even if the power goes out—a thermometer can help determine whether cooling conditions have been rendered unsafe for perishables; refrigerated items should be at or below 40°F and frozen food at or below 0°F, per the USDA best practices
  • Freeze refrigerated items such as leftovers, milk, and fresh meat that aren’t immediately needed—this will keep products at a safe temperature for a longer period
  • Store food on higher shelves in flood emergencies to keep them out of harm’s way
  • Prep coolers in advance if you believe the power will be out longer than four hours by keeping the doors closed
  • Arrange food closer together in the freezer—this helps to keep products colder for longer

What to Do During and After the Weather Emergency

There are several measures you can take to practice food safety in weather emergencies. However, always be aware of what the conditions are and consider the safety of yourself first, the food second. Here are some guidelines on what to do during a weather incident:

  • Keep the doors of your walk-in cooler or freezer closed during the emergency to preserve the cold air
  • Add block ice or dry ice to keep your refrigerator and freezer as cold as possible in times where the power is expected to be out for some time (50 lbs. of dry ice will preserve an 18-cubic-foot full freezer for two days according to the FDA)

These tips may allow you to keep food frozen for a longer period of time should a power outage occur. In many cases, you may find that many foods cannot be salvaged after exposure. If you have any doubts about a food’s safety, dispose of it.

In the case of flooding, you will most likely have to replace all food should it spoil or if flood waters contain harmful elements like sewage. However, your refrigeration equipment may be possible to save with proper cleaning.

After a power outage, there may also be specific steps required to reboot your walk-in freezer or refrigerator after an emergency. Please keep this in mind once the emergency has passed.

You’ll also need to determine what food can be saved. If you still see ice crystal formation or the temperature never rose over 40°F, then refreeze the food. You’ll need to evaluate each item individually to determine if it’s safe to keep.

Discard anything perishable that has been exposed to higher temperatures. Any food that is found in damaged freezers should be thrown out. It’s best to rule on the side of caution—so when in doubt, throw it out.

Removing Lingering Odors

One more challenge you may encounter is a lingering post-emergency odor. After disposing of food that may be the source of the smell, you should remove shelves, crispers, and ice trays. Wash them with hot water and detergent, then rinse with a sanitizing solution (one tablespoon unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water). Learn more about maintenance and housekeeping recommendations for KPS Global walk-in freezers here.

Food safety in weather emergencies can be a complex challenge, but with the right preparation and actions, you may be able to save some of your inventory, depending on the severity of the emergency. However, do so only when it is safe. Find additional information regarding food safety at foodsafety.gov.