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I Lost Power and My Food Spoiled. Can I Get Reimbursed?

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A person photographed from behind their head, looking in a fridge and holding some eggs in their hands.
If you've lost food because you lost power, you may have options for claiming back those costs. (Getty Images)

This recent run of storms in the Bay Area has brought high winds and downed trees — which has meant a lot of power outages for people across the region.

One big way that losing power can affect you, your household and your finances: When your fridge and your freezer shut down for an extended period, much of your fresh food ends up spoiled and unsafe to eat. Food safety guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture explicitly state that a refrigerator without power will only keep food safe to eat for up to four hours during a power outage, and that after that you should “discard refrigerated perishable food,” specifically meat, poultry, fish, eggs and leftovers.

At a time when food costs keep rising and food benefits are about to drop, losing a fridge or freezer’s worth of food can mean a serious loss for a home that’s trying to make every dollar stretch. If this happened to you, you’re by no means alone, says Mark Toney, executive director of The Utility Reform Network (TURN).

“We’ve heard a lot of complaints from people who, because of these storms, because the electricity lines have been brought down by trees, that absolutely — they were without power for a day, two days, and lost everything in their refrigerator,” said Toney. “What’s hard is … [holding] the utility company responsible for some of these weather events.”

But the good news is, there are avenues available to potentially claim back the costs of food you lost due to a shutoff.

The not-so-good news: These routes aren’t always simple or guaranteed to work. But they do exist, so keep reading for what you should know about trying to claim compensation for spoiled food.

What you need to know about claiming the costs of spoiled food

You can try to clam compensation from two sources:

  • PG&E, your utility provider; or,
  • Your insurance provider, if you have one.

For claiming compensation, it matters what kind of outage you were affected by — that is:

  • What caused the outage: whether it was a weather event, like a storm, or a mistake by PG&E; and,
  • How long the outage was.

In any case, seeking compensation from either PG&E or your insurance provider may prove time-consuming and potentially confusing, and isn’t necessarily guaranteed to result in a payment. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Keep reading for the details.

How to claim compensation directly from PG&E

PG&E generally has two routes for getting compensated for lost food during an outage: the company’s regular claims process, and their Safety Net program, which automatically provides Storm Inconvenience Payments. The process you choose depends on what caused your outage and how long you were without power.

Seeking compensation through Storm Inconvenience Payments from PG&E’s Safety Net program

According to PG&E, the Safety Net program is intended to compensate customers who experience outages caused by weather, through an automatic Storm Inconvenience Payment — but the outage must have lasted 48 hours or more.

How it’s meant to work: PG&E says that if your household is affected by a power outage that lasts for two days or longer, its Safety Net program will pay “$25 to $100 automatically 60 to 120 days after the outage.”

You should not have to do anything to receive this payment, or actively make a claim, but if four months have passed with no sign of your Storm Inconvenience Payment, you can call PG&E’s extended outage line at (888) PGE-4PGE (1-888-743-4743).

The payment is tiered according to how long your outage lasted, and your bill will be credited $25 for every 24-hour period you’ve been without power — but only after you’ve been without power for 24 hours:

  • 48–72 hours (i.e., 2–3 days): $25 payment
  • 72–96 hours (i.e., 3–4 days): $50 payment
  • 96–120 hours (i.e., 4–5 days): $75 payment
  • 120 hours or more (i.e., 5 days or longer): $100 payment, maximum

Businesses, agricultural accounts, multifamily-building common areas, streetlights “and all other non-residential accounts” are not eligible to receive Storm Inconvenience Payments, even if the outage was 48 hour or longer. Clients who experienced what PG&E call a public safety power shutoff (PSPS) during a period of high wildfire risk also don’t qualify for these payments. Read more about what’s not covered by a Storm Inconvenience Payment under PG&E’s Safety Net program.

Claiming compensation through PG&E’s regular claims process

You can file a compensation claim for specific damages caused by a power outage using the form linked here (PDF). You can claim back the costs of spoiled food but also expenses related to a personal injury, property damage and lost wages. But according to PG&E, the outage cannot have been caused by weather.

This form states that “generally speaking, PG&E is responsible for damages that result from its negligence” but also adds that the company is “not responsible for damages that we do not cause or that are the result of forces beyond our control.”

What’s beyond PG&E’s control? According to the utility company, outages that are “caused by earthquakes [or] weather conditions (such as lightning, floods, heavy storms, extreme heat or winds).”

More Guides from KQED

You can submit a claim to PG&E online, by email, by fax or by mail. This process will ask you for a lot of documentation, including photographs of the spoiled food, so be sure to take photos before you toss anything. You’ll also be asked for receipts for the food. If you do not have receipts for all the food you lost, you could try to submit the following:

  • Receipts for any replacement food you had to buy.
  • Screenshots from your grocery’s store website that shows the specific food items lost with their prices.
  • An online receipt, if you have a membership or an account with the store you purchased your food from that tracks your purchases (for example, Target Circle).

PG&E says they assess food spoilage complaints based on the USDA guidelines regarding how long food stays cold. Those guidelines say:

  • Fully stocked freezers usually keep food frozen for two days after losing power.
  • Half-full freezers usually keep food frozen for about one day.
  • Refrigerators usually keep food cold for up to four hours if the door remains unopened.

This means that you probably won’t be able to claim compensation for, say, a half-full freezer that had no power for half a day — or for the contents of a fully stocked freezer that lost power for one day.

The outage that spoiled my food was during the storms, but it lasted less than 48 hours. What do I do?

In this case, PG&E does not provide a clear option for claiming compensation — even though those USDA food safety guidelines make clear that food in a refrigerator that’s been without power for over four hours is no longer safe to eat, and perishable foods should be discarded.

That said, when asked to clarify whether someone affected by storm-related food spoilage should only wait for a Storm Inconvenience Payment and not apply for compensation through PG&E’s claims portal, PG&E spokesperson Tamar Sarkissian told KQED in an email that “[w]e look at each and every claim that comes through, and make decisions on an individual basis.”

With this in mind, you may decide to file a claim directly through PG&E’s claims portal anyway.

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How to claim compensation directly from your insurer

If you have renters insurance or homeowners insurance, your policy may cover the loss of food due to an outage. Like filing a claim directly through PG&E, you’ll most likely have to provide documentation and evidence of food spoilage, so take photos of your food before you throw it away.

But this isn’t guaranteed, and you’ll need to either contact your insurer directly to inquire, or consult your policy details.

Mark Toney of TURN also recommends being aware of the potential consequences of claiming for spoiled food on your insurance: Make sure you’re aware of the amount of the deductible you’d have to pay to receive a payout.

Not only that, but “just remember that there’s a trade-off,” cautions Toney. “Insurance companies have been known to increase premiums after a claim.

If you’ve lost your food due to outages and can’t buy more right now

If your food has spoiled in your fridge or your freezer, and you are finding it difficult to replace it and secure food for your household, you have options.

See our guide to finding food assistance near you, from food banks and community pantries to options for picking up free or low-cost groceries in your county. You can also call 211, 24 hours a day, if you are in immediate need of food assistance.

Tell us: What else do you need information about?

At KQED News, we know that it can sometimes be hard to track down the answers to navigate life in the Bay Area in 2023. We’ve published clear, helpful explainers and guides about issues like COVID, how to cope with intense winter weather and how to exercise your right to protest safely.

So tell us: What do you need to know more about? Tell us, and you could see your question answered online or on social media. What you submit will make our reporting stronger, and help us decide what to cover here on our site, and on KQED Public Radio, too.


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