Tips for Food Safety During a Power Outage

Find out what to do before, during and after a power outage to ensure food safety.
December 9, 2019

When you run a restaurant, you have to be ready for just about anything — including power outages.

If the power goes out in the middle of service, chaos can ensue. Besides leaving your guests and staff literally in the dark, a power outage also means you have a walk-in refrigerator and freezer full of food that could rapidly spoil.

Power outages can be frustrating and stressful, but there are many things you can do to plan for a power outage; by taking practical steps to prepare, you can minimize business disruption and food waste that so often occurs as a result.

How to plan for a power outage

When it comes to running a food business (and just about everything else), it’s a good idea to hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Here’s how to plan for a power outage:

  • Look into buying an electrical generator. Even a small generator would allow you to keep your POS system or refrigeration units online for long enough to cash out existing bills and keep perishable food cold for longer.
  • Keep a paper list of emergency contacts (including your local health department), emergency flashlights, a (fully charged) external battery and an old-fashioned credit card swiper in an easy-to-find location in your office.
  • Create an emergency response plan and train your entire staff on what to do if the power goes out during their shift. Food safety training is critical to ensure food safety under any circumstance, but especially in the event of a power outage.

Some food businesses may be able to operate with a reduced menu in the event of a power outage. This really depends on the nature of your business and the type of food you sell.

Before you even think about it, verify the food safety laws and regulations in your area. Many municipalities do not allow food premises to operate during a long-term power outage (greater than two hours) because of potential health hazards.

You’ll also want to consider lighting and ventilation. Your backup generator may be able to keep your POS system online, but you still have to consider customer and employee safety.

Note: This decision must be made in advance and carefully planned for. It is never a good idea to make this decision “on the fly” because of the high level of risk.

Tips for food safety during a power outage

When the power goes out in your restaurant, be sure to follow the food safety tips below:

  • Make note of the time when the power turned off.
  • Throw out any food, especially meat, that was in the process of cooking but hadn’t reached its safe cooking temperature when the power went out.
  • Do not open refrigerator or freezer doors unless absolutely necessary in order to maintain the cold temperature. (An unopened refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours. An unopened freezer that is half full will keep food frozen for about 24 hours.)
  • If necessary, add bags of ice to the freezer to help keep the temperature cold for longer (replenish ice as needed).
  • Discard food held in hot holding units if the temperature has dipped below 60°C / 140°F for more than two hours.
  • Use a probe thermometer to check internal food temperatures.

Note: Communication during a power outage can go a long way. Remember to communicate with your guests frequently and consistently. If customers wish to leave, make sure they get out safely and apologize for the inconvenience.

Reopening after a power outage

Do the following after a power outage in your business (especially one that lasted for longer than two hours):

  • Note the time that the power was back on in your business and calculate how long it was out. This, and the current temperature of the food in your refrigerator, will determine if you can salvage your perishable food items.
  • Use a probe thermometer to check internal food temperatures of any perishable foods left in your refrigerator.
  • Throw out perishable foods that have been at temperatures above 4°C / 40°F* for more than two hours.
  • Discard any food, especially raw meat, that shows obvious signs of spoilage, such as foul odours, sticky or slimy texture or unusual colour.
  • Frozen food that has developed freezer burn from being defrosted and then refrozen should be discarded. (Food that still contains ice crystals can be safely re-frozen.)
  • Thoroughly clean and sanitize surfaces underneath and around perishable food items that had to be thrown out.

If your food business is closed during a long-term power outage, ensure the following are completed prior to re-opening:

  1. Unsafe foods have been discarded.
  2. Refrigerators are 4°C /40°F* or lower and freezers are -18°C / 0°F or lower.
  3. Steam tables / hot holding units are capable of maintaining foods at 60°C / 140°F or higher.
  4. Hot and cold potable water is available.
  5. Lighting and ventilation are operable.

*In Manitoba, perishable or ‘high-risk’ foods must be kept at 5°C / 41°F or below. Everywhere else in Canada, they must be kept at 4°C / 40°F or below.

Food safety in Canada

It’s important to remember that it is the responsibility of the food business owner or operator to ensure that food sold on the premises is safe, regardless of the circumstances.

A power outage or other emergency does not exempt you from the requirement to safeguard consumer health.

The best way to ensure food safety — and compliance with Canada-wide food safety laws — in a restaurant or other food premises is through food safety training and education.

The Canadian Institute of Food Safety (CIFS) delivers a nationally recognized, food safe equivalent food handling course online.