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Keeping food and water safe during flooding and power outages


Storms in California have led to massive flooding and left hundreds of thousands without power. Severe weather has also left other areas of the country recovering from foods and tornadoes. Various public health departments are releasing tips on how to keep food and water safe if you find yourself in the affected areas.

Follow the steps below to reduce the risk of foodborne illness during this or other emergency events:

Plan Ahead If You Can

  • If possible, raise refrigerators and freezers off the floor, putting cement blocks under their corners.
  • Move canned goods and other foods that are kept in the basement or low cabinets to a higher area.

Food Safety After a Flood

  • Use bottled drinking water that has not come in contact with flood water.
  • Do not eat any food that may have come in contact with flood water.
  • Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance it may have come in contact with flood water. Food containers that are not waterproof include those with screw-caps, snap lids, pull tops and crimped caps.
  • Also discard cardboard juice/milk/baby formula boxes and home canned foods if they have come in contact with flood waters. They cannot be effectively cleaned and sanitized.
  • Inspect canned foods; discard any food in damaged cans. Can damage is shown by swelling, leakage, punctures, holes, fractures, extensive deep rusting or crushing/denting severe enough to prevent normal stacking or opening with a manual, wheel-type can opener.
  • Discard wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples, and pacifiers that may have come in contact with flood waters. There is no way to safely clean them.
  • Thoroughly wash metal pans, ceramic dishes, utensils (including can openers) with soap and water (hot water if available). Rinse and sanitize them by boiling in clean water or immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water.
  • Thoroughly wash countertops with soap and water (hot water if available). Rinse and then sanitize them by applying a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water. Allow to air-dry.
  • Note: If your refrigerator or freezer was submerged by floodwaters — even partially — it is unsafe to use and must be discarded.

If the Power Goes Out  

Cold temperatures slow the growth of harmful bacteria. Keeping food at safe temperatures is key to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses.

  • Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. The refrigerator will keep food cold for about 4 hours, and a full freezer will keep the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if half full) if the doors remain closed. 
  • Use ice (dry, block ice or ice cubes) and frozen containers of water or gel packs to keep your refrigerator and freezer as cold as possible.

When Power is Restored

Before eating any food after a power outage, check the temperatures inside your refrigerator and freezer.

  • If the power was out for no more than 4 hours, refrigerated food should be safe as long as the doors were kept closed. When the power comes back on, check the temperature in the refrigerator or of the food. Perishable foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, milk, eggs or leftovers with temperatures that are 45 degrees F or below, as measured with a food thermometer, should be safe but cook and consume them as soon as possible.
  • Discard any perishable food that has been at temperatures above 40 degrees F for 4 hours or more.
  • If the freezer thermometer reads 40 degrees F or below, food is safe and may be refrozen. If you did not have a thermometer in the freezer, check each package to determine its safety; you can’t rely on appearance or odor. If the food still contains ice crystals or is 40 degrees F or below, it is safe to refreeze or cook.
  • Be aware that perishable foods that are not kept adequately refrigerated or frozen may cause food poisoning if eaten, even after they are thoroughly cooked.

If you have questions about food safety during severe weather, or any other food safety topics, you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888MPHotline or chat live with a food safety specialist at AskKaren.gov. These services are available in English and Spanish from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday. Answers to frequently asked question can also be found 24/7 at AskKaren.gov.

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