Safe Handling Of Damaged Food in the Home After a Disaster

Christine Patrick,
Senior Food Safety & Nutrition Agent,
Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service

HTF 0617

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Food contamination can be a problem after a disaster (flood, tornado or fire). Except for fire, floods are the most common and widespread of all natural disasters. Most communities in the United States can experience some kind of flooding after spring rains and heavy thunderstorms. Flood waters may carry silt, raw sewage, oil or chemical waste. Filth and disease causing bacteria in flood water may contaminate foods the water touches, making them unsafe to eat. Food exposed to fire can be compromised by three factors: the heat of the fire, smoke fumes, and chemicals used to fight fire. If you are in doubt about the safety of a food, throw it out rather than risk disease.

Unsafe Refrigerated Foods: Discard the following if your refrigerator has been without power for more than 4 hours:

  • raw, cooked, or leftover meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and egg substitutes
  • luncheon meat and hot dogs
  • casseroles, soups, stews, and pizza
  • mixed salads (i.e., chicken, tuna, macaroni, potato)
  • gravy and stuffing
  • milk, cream, yogurt, sour cream, and soft cheeses
  • cut fruits and vegetables (fresh)
  • cooked vegetables
  • fruit and vegetable juices (opened)
  • creamy-based salad dressing
  • batters and doughs (i.e., pancake batter, cookie dough)
  • custard, chiffon, or cheese pies
  • cream-filled pastries
  • garlic stored in oil

Discard opened mayonnaise, tartar sauce, and horseradish if they were held above 50 °F for over 8 hours and any foods like bread or salad greens that may have become contaminated by juices dripping from raw meat, poultry, or fish.

Note: In general, if any food has been opened and comes in contact with flood water, has an unusual odor, color, or texture, throw it out.

Safe-to-Eat Frozen Foods include:

  • thawed, but still contain ice crystals
  • foods that have remained at refrigerator temperatures — 40 °F or below (they may be safely refrozen; however, their quality may suffer)
  • products that don't actually need to be frozen, (these foods may be used unless they turn moldy or have an unusual odor: dried fruits and coconut
  • baked foods including: fruit pies, bread, rolls, muffins, and cakes (except for those with cream cheese frosting or cream fillings)
  • hard or processed cheeses
  • butter and margarine
  • fruit juices
  • nuts

Note: Never taste food to determine its safety.

Removing Odors from Refrigerators and Freezers:  The following steps may have to be repeated several times:

  • Dispose of any spoiled or questionable food.
  • Remove shelves, crispers, and ice trays. Wash them thoroughly with hot water and detergent. Then rinse with a sanitizing solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water.
  • Wash the interior of the refrigerator and freezer, including the door and gaskets, with hot water and baking soda. Rinse with a sanitizing solution (see above).
  • Leave the door open for about 15 minutes.

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 water. 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 water. 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 the counters to air-dry.

Note: If your refrigerator or freezer was submerged by floodwaters, even partially, it is unsafe to use and must be discarded.

Those living in natural disaster areas should keep supplies on hand because during a hurricane or flood, power will likely be disrupted, putting food in danger. Knowing what to keep and how to make environmentally damaged food safe after a disaster can help you avoid foodborne illnesses.

Sources:

  1. USDA, Keep Your Food Safe During Emergencies: Power Outages, Floods and Fires, http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/emergency-preparedness/keep-your-food-safe-during-emergencies/ct_index
  2. HGIC 3800, Food Safety in Hurricanes & Floods, Clemson Extension Home and Garden Information Center.
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