The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is issuing food safety recommendations for those who may be impacted by wildfires in California.

With the chance of critical to extreme fire weather conditions throughout California, Pacific Gas & Electric may proactively turn off power for safety. PG&E warns that these outages could last longer than 48 hours. For planning and safety purposes, consumers should prepare for outages that could last several days.

Severe weather events such as wildfires that lead to power outages can compromise the safety of your food. Without electricity or a cold source, food stored in refrigerators and freezers can become unsafe. Bacteria in food grows rapidly at temperatures between 40 and 140 °F, and if these foods are consumed, people can become very sick. Knowing what to do before and after a weather event can help you reduce your risk of illness. By following these guidelines, you can also minimize the amount of food that may be lost due to spoilage.

Steps to follow in advance of losing power:

  • Keep appliance thermometers in both refrigerator and freezer to ensure temperatures remain food-safe during a power outage. Safe temperatures are 40°F or lower in the refrigerator, 0°F or lower in the freezer.
  • Freeze water in one-quart plastic storage bags or small containers prior to a hurricane. These containers are small enough to fit 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 refrigerator 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.
  • Keep a few days’ worth of ready-to-eat foods that do not require cooking or cooling.

Steps to follow if the power goes out:

  • Keep 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 freezer or on a tray to prevent cross-contamination of thawing juices.
  • Use dry or block ice to keep 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°F for two hours or more.
  • Check each item separately. Throw out any food that has an unusual odor, color,or texture or if it feels warm to the touch.
  • Check frozen food for ice crystals. The food in your freezer that partially or completely thawed may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is 40°F or below.
  • Never taste a food to decide if it’s safe.
  • When in doubt, throw it out.

FSIS will provide relevant food safety information for power outages on Twitter @USDAFoodSafety and Facebook.

FSIS’ YouTube video “Food Safety During Power Outages” has instructions for keeping frozen and refrigerated food safe. The publication “A Consumer’s Guide to Food Safety: Severe Storms and Hurricanes” can be downloaded and printed for reference during a power outage.

Consumers with food safety questions can call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or live chat via Ask USDA from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (Eastern Time) Monday through Friday. Consumers can also browse food safety messages at Ask USDA or send a question via email to MPHotline@usda.gov.

Main Image Caption: IN THE DARK: The USDA shares tips for power outages during wildfires, including keeping your refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible and checking food for ice crystals. Photo by Andrey Popov/bigstockphoto.com