Article contributed by Susan Algeo, MPH, CP-FS, is the Director of Project Management at Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc.
Power outages are never fun and in a food operation it can be especially problematic. According to Atmospheric and Environmental Research, power outages costs US businesses over $70 billion per year. The costs come from damages, food waste, loss of customers, loss of operational hours, and cleaning. Establishments may lose power for any variety of reasons. Sometimes it may be as simple as a blown fuse. It may be wildfires or storms, blizzards, hurricanes, tornados that can knock down powerlines and cause outages. During the summer, there may be blackouts due to heat and the overworking power grid. We never know when a power outage can happen, so it’s important to plan ahead.
There are some major food safety concerns during restaurant power outages. Refrigeration will not work, cooking and hot holding may not be possible, machine dishwashers will not function, and there will likely be no hot water (if there’s water at all). Being prepared for any type of emergency will help limit the chaos, risks, and damages. To minimize the costs and disruption at your establishment, follow these tips to help you prepare, take action, and recover.
There are general guidelines every establishment should follow to be prepared for a power outage. Make sure to have:
- Flashlights available – and ensure they’re charged and/or have working batteries, and are in an easy accessible location.
- Emergency phone numbers printed out. When the power goes out, you won’t have access to your computer and you may not want to waste your cell phone battery looking for this information. Quickly accessible phone numbers should include: local health department, utility companies, staff members, and upcoming reservations (so you can call guests to reschedule).
- A good old fashioned land line, with the phone plugged directly into the wall. It can be a life saver in a power outage.
- Ongoing staff training around power outages, so employees are prepared when and if this occurs. Do practice drills with your staff on different types of emergencies. This will help limit the risk and chaos during a power outage.
- Evacuation plans set in case the situation warrants it.
If power outages are more common in your area, there are some extra precautions you can take to be better prepared:
- Have a backup generator so your refrigeration and freezer units can remain running.
- Install additional emergency lighting that will remain on during the outage.
- Install thermometer and alarms on your refrigeration equipment. These can notify you when the temperature has reached an unsafe level and help you monitor how long the food has been exposed to those temperatures.
- Keep extra ice on hand or freeze containers of water to help stock smaller freezers and coolers.
You must understand local regulations about what to do when you lose power. Many jurisdictions will require you to close immediately when there is a loss of power. Others allow packaged food stores to remain open and sell only packaged non-TCS foods.
Steps to take include:
- Ensure the safety of your employees and customers. This should be your top priority.
- Check with local regulations. If you have an alternate power supply, check with local regulations to confirm you are doing that properly.
- Stop food preparation if there is no hot water or not enough water pressure, if there is not enough lighting, and if food cannot be kept at safe temperatures.
- Assign each employee a specific task from your emergency action plan. Have someone check on the guests. If they are allowed to remain in the establishment, make sure they are okay and check to see if they need anything, offering them bottled water or packaged goods until the power is restored. If customers need to leave the establishment, have an employee use a flashlight to safely escort them out of the facility.
- Be sure all refrigerators and freezer doors are kept closed. Temperatures of refrigeration units must be below 41ºF, freezers below 0ºF. If there is time to plan ahead for potential power outages, freeze any refrigerated foods that you may not need immediately (meats, dairy products, leftovers, etc.). This can extend the time these foods remain below 41ºF.
- Add extra ice and pre-frozen water containers to refrigerators and freezers.
- Note the time that the power goes out and monitor thermometers, if you can. Also note the time the refrigeration units rise above 41ºF. In general, with their doors closed, full freezers can keep food cold for about 48 hours (only 24 hours if half full), refrigerators can safely keep food cold for about 4 hours. After 4 hours, food should not be consumed and must be discarded. However, if the food has not been above 41ºF for more than 2 hours, it can be consumed or cooled down to 41º or lower to store for the appropriate amount of time. Any food that was in the process of being cooked, but did not reach its safe final internal cooking temperature must be discarded.
Once power is restored:
- Ensure all of your equipment is working properly, reset circuit breakers, and make sure water is hot enough to properly clean and sanitize.
- Discard any food that has been time-temperature abused for too long. If food spoiled in your refrigeration or freezer units, you must clean and sanitize the units before placing new food into them.
- Use deodorizers to remove any bad odors that were created.
- Don’t taste food to see if it has spoiled. When in doubt, throw it out! Although it is hard to lose the food – and many see it as a waste – the cost of a foodborne illness is too high to take the risk of keeping (and serving) a potentially unsafe food item.
- Review your plan and see if there is any room for improvement for the next power outage or other emergency. Talk to the staff and get their input on recommended changes. Update the plan and re-train staff as needed.
- Power outages are never enjoyable, but with the proper emergency action plan you will be able to prepare, take action, and recover with minimal downtime, hassle and costs!
Susan Algeo is the Director of Project Management at Food Safety Training Solutions, Inc., where she facilitates food safety training classes, including ServSafe® and NRFSP®, for numerous corporations nationwide. She’s known for making the lessons – and the subject matter – memorable and engaging. An integral part of the Food Safety Training Solutions team, Susan also provides other food safety services, including consulting and more. As a consultant, she helps operators and their teams improve their standards, procedures, and overall commitment to food safety. Additionally, she conducts third-party inspections of customers’ operations to improve their health inspection results.