Power Outages in Food Establishments

The time to plan for an emergency is before it happens. These guidelines can help those who operate retail food businesses know what to do before, during and after a power outage so they can protect their customers from foodborne disease and minimize product losses.

The most critical food safety concern is the condition of potentially hazardous food such as meats, eggs, dairy products, cooked vegetables and cut leafy greens, tomatoes and melons. Potentially hazardous food is usually moist, non-acidic, perishable and must be kept at temperatures below 41°F or above 135°F.

Before a power outage

  • Consider having an electrical generator available during a power outage. It needs to be large enough to operate the electrical equipment in your facility, and you should check with your power company to ensure that its installation and use will meet any safety standards.
  • Investigate potential sources for a refrigerated truck to be used during extended  power outages.
  • Make sure you have a phone that plugs directly into a phone jack and does not require additional power.
  • Keep a list of emergency phone numbers, including the number for your local health department. The number for Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s Food Program is (253) 798-6460.

When a power outage occurs

  • Keep track of the time the outage begins.
  • Stop using gas or solid fuel (i.e., charcoal, wood, sterno) cooking and heating equipment if the exhaust hood and air systems stop working. Using this equipment without proper ventilation can lead to dangerous build up of toxic fumes that may cause injury or death.
  • Throw away any food that is in process of being cooked but has not yet reached final cooking temperature.

Note: A power outage of two hours or less is not considered hazardous to food that was being held under safe conditions when the outage began.

Actions that can keep food safe for several hours

Cold potentially hazardous food:

  • Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible.
  • If practical, group packages of cold food together. Keep raw meat away from other food.
  • Cover any open display refrigerators and freezers, especially vertical displays.
  • Surround food with ice.

Caution: Using dry ice to cool food may cause an unsafe build-up of carbon dioxide in enclosed spaces.

Hot potentially hazardous food:

  • Do not put hot food in refrigerators or freezers.
  • Use canned chafing dish fuel under food on electric steam tables to help keep potentially hazardous food at 140°F.

Stop preparing food if:

  • Food cannot be kept at safe temperatures.
  • There is no hot water.
  • There is not enough water pressure.
  • You cannot wash, rinse and sanitize utensils properly.
  • There is not enough light for employees to work safely.

After power is restored:

  • Check the internal temperature of all hot and cold potentially hazardous food.
  • Decide to either keep or throw away potentially hazardous food, as shown in the tables below.
  • If cold food was grouped together to keep cold, space it out so it will cool more quickly.

What to do with potentially hazardous food



If you voluntarily closed your facility, you should verify the following conditions before you resume food preparation or sale of potentially hazardous food:

  • All unsafe potentially hazardous food (according to the charts above) has been discarded. If there are any questions about the safety of specific foods, contact the health department.
  • Hot and cold potable running water is available for hand washing and dishwashing.
  • All equipment and facilities are operating properly, including lighting, refrigeration, hot holding, ventilation and toilet facilities.
  • Refrigerators are at 41°F or below.
  • Electricity and gas services have been restored.
  • All circuit breakers have been properly reset as needed.

Note: If the local health department closed your facility, you must remain closed until that agency gives you official approval to reopen.

Disposal of food

  • If food must be thrown away, document the type, amount of food and the reason for disposal, so you can provide the information to regulators and your insurance company.
  • Small amounts of food to be thrown away can be treated with a cleaning product (such as bleach) so that they will not be eaten, and placed in the outside garbage bin.
  • To throw away large amounts of food, contact your garbage disposal company or your local landfill operator for disposal instructions.
  • If you have questions about the safety of specific foods, contact the Health Department.

More information

Power Outages at Home 

  • Store food carefully to prevent foodborne illness when power outages make refrigeration unavailable.
  • Use foods first that can spoil most rapidly.
  • Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed. Your refrigerator's freezer will keep food frozen for up to a day. A separate fully-loaded freezer will keep food frozen for two days.
  • Use an ice chest packed with ice or snow to keep food cold. Buy dry ice to save frozen food. Do not handle dry ice with your bare hands. Use blocks or bags of ice to save refrigerator foods.
  • Use caution if storing food outside during winter to keep it cold. The outside temperature varies, especially in the sun. Frozen food may thaw and refrigerator food may become warm enough to grow bacteria. Food stored outside must be secured from contamination by animals.
  • If in doubt, throw it out. Throw out meat, seafood, dairy products and cooked food that don’t feel cold.
  • Never taste suspect food. Even if food looks and smells fine, illness-causing bacteria may be present.

Adapted from Washington State Department of Health (DOH Pub 821-030 March 2008) and Washington State Military Department Emergency Management Division resources


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