Food Protection Connection: Food Safety During Emergencies
Each Food Protection Connection article is approved for 1 hr CE (sanitation) for CDM, CFPPs and 1 CPE hour (level 1) for RDs and DTRs.
Earn CE for this by purchasing a CE form in the Marketplace
(reprinted from Dietary Manager, October 2011)
Natural disasters—including floods, fires, or severe storms—can jeopardize the safety of your food . Knowing how to minimize potential food losses and reduce the risk of food-borne illness will help you keep your family and clients safe during an emergency .
Whether it’s a hurricane, tornado, snowstorm, or other natural disaster, if you are lucky enough to know there is a potential for flooding, power outages or boil water advisories, please prepare! It may seem like a wasted exercise if the emergency situation never materializes, but should a disaster strike, you will be grateful you made some preparations ahead of time.
Recovering from a disaster comes with a lot of emotions and many decisions. As most people are not food safety experts, they are never quite sure whether to throw things away or keep them; or even how to sanitize surfaces and equipment to make them safe. The pointers that follow will hopefully guide you through some steps to help cope with the next natural disaster you may need to deal with.
Boil Water Advisories
if a boil water advisory is issued for your area, please comply with the order, even if it was issued for precautionary reasons.
- Boiling water (a rolling boil) for one minute will kill most types of disease-causing organisms that may be present in the water. For large volumes of water, five minutes. After being boiled, water should be cooled, and then stored in clean containers with covers.
- Drink only boiled or bottled water.
- Do not attempt to add chlorine to your water to make it potable. elevated chlorine levels can be dangerous to consume. Without a testing kit you would not know if you had elevated chlorine residual.
- Use only boiled or bottled water for drinking, food preparation, hand washing, teeth brushing, and similar activities.
- After a boil water advisory is lifted, empty automatic ice trays and discard three runs of ice before consuming.
- For refrigerators with integrated drinking water, run water lines for 1-5 minutes to remove any contaminated water from the lines. Water line filters may need to be cleaned or replaced.
- Wells that have been flooded should be disinfected and tested after floodwaters recede.
- Do not resume consumption of your water supply until the boil water advisory has been lifted.
- Keep appliance thermometers in your refrigerator and freezer, ensuring the refrigerator is set at 41°F or below and the freezer is set at 0°F or below.
- If there is a potential you may lose power during a storm, freeze containers of water for ice to help keep food cold in the freezer, refrigerator, or coolers after the power is out.
- Freeze refrigerated items you may not need immediately. They will stay colder longer in a frozen state than they would in a refrigerated state.
- Store food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water if flooding might occur.
- Never taste food to determine its safety.
- Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed to maintain the cold temperature. The more you open the doors, the quicker the units will warm up.
- Any refrigerated or frozen food that is still below 41°F after the return of electricity will be safe to consume.
- Food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 41°F or below.
- A refrigerator will keep food safely cool for about four hours. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if half full).
- Obtain block ice or dry ice to keep your refrigerator and freezer as cold as possible if the power is projected to be out for a prolonged period of time. Fifty pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic-foot full freezer for two days.
- Discard refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers, and deli items after four hours without power, unless you can verify that the food is still below 41°F.
Often a flood comes with storms that create power outages, loss of water pressure, and of course influx of water into your home or facility. if you are warned of an impending flood that may knock out your electricity, trigger a boil water advisory, or even flood your home or facility, prepare with a few basic items.
Flood waters can contain sewage, chemicals, oil, gas, and other similar nasty things that should never be consumed. even if the nearest gas station is miles away, flood waters move fast and contaminated waters from these areas will move quickly downstream, and before you know it be in your backyard. Please take flood water seriously. even just standing in flood waters can cause illness, so wear protective gear if you need to wade into flood waters.
- Fill your utility sink and bathtubs with water so you will have water to flush toilets, give to animals, water plants, or for similar uses. Do not consider this water potable…but you can use it as a non-potable source of water (to flush toilets and similar), should you lose pressure on your system or not have water at all.
- Fill cleaned and sanitized water coolers with water. If you do not have water coolers, you can use an empty soda bottle or similar food or drink container. This will certainly help save having to buy bottled water. Store in higher places to keep them safe from flood waters.
- Remove all foods and food-related items from lower shelves of pantries, storerooms, basements, and similar. if you have a second floor, move these shelf-stable food items to higher ground.
- Most important, get yourself in a safe spot, even if you need to evacuate. By staying, you could be putting yourself or a rescue worker at risk should they need to come save you.
- Drink only bottled or boiled water if flooding has occurred, unless the authority has verified your water supply is safe.
- Keep an ear out for any boil water advisories or water conservation orders that may be implemented. Please observe the advisories.
- Do not use dishes that may have come into contact with flood waters. Before using, thoroughly wash all metal pans, ceramic dishes, and utensils that came in contact with flood water with hot soapy water. Sanitize by boiling these items in clean water, or by immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of one teaspoon of unscented chlorine bleach per gallon of water.
After flooding, if there is a chance these items came in contact with flood waters or splash, discard them:
- Home-canned foods.
- All foods in cardboard boxes, paper, foil, cellophane, or cloth.
- Meat, poultry, eggs, or fish.
- Spices, seasonings, extracts, flour, sugar, grain, coffee, and other staples in canisters or bottles.
- Fruits and vegetables that have not been harvested from gardens and have been in contact with flood waters. All evidence shows that contaminant from flood waters will absorb into the cellular layer of the plant and cannot be washed off. These should not be fed to domesticated pets either.
- Unopened jars with waxed cardboard seals, such as mayonnaise and salad dressing. Also, throw away preserves sealed with paraffin.
- Wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples, and pacifiers.
- You can salvage canned foods that did not come into contact with flood water.
- Commercially canned foods that came into contact with flood water and have been properly cleaned by: labeling cans with the name of food in permanent marker; removing labels; washing cans in water containing detergent; soaking cans for at least one minute in chlorine solution (1tsp bleach/gallon water); rinsing in clean, cool water; placing on sides to dry (do not stack cans).
- Dishes and glassware should be sanitized by boiling in clean water or by immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of one teaspoon of chlorine bleach per quart of water.
- Thoroughly wash countertops with soap and hot water. Rinse and sanitize by applying a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water. Allow to air-dry.
If I could tell you how many calls I receive in which a consumer is trying to save a small amount of questionable food, you would be amazed. Most of us are just not willing to throw food away if there is a chance it could be safe to eat. Hopefully some of the tips in this article will give you a better evaluation tool to make decisions as to whether to keep or not keep food …and better yet, how to prepare if you know a situation is coming your way. Dealing with an emergency situation is difficult enough. No one needs to compound the disaster by being sick during the recovery period.
Whether it is an emergency situation in spring, summer, fall, or winter…and whether it is a boil water order, flood, power outage or similar…one rule is applicable to any situation in which food or water may have been compromised or contaminated: When in doubt, throw it out!
by Melissa Vaccaro, MS, CHO
Melissa Vaccaro, MS, CHO is a Food Program Specialist for the PA Department of Agriculture and an Executive Board Member for the Central Atlantic States Association of Food Drug Officials (CASA). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.