Food Safety & Sanitation: Before, During, and After a Natural Disaster or Emergency
Oh the irony. You survive a natural disaster or emergency only to become sick because of the lack of food safety.
Make sure you and those in your care are food safe. Be aware of and practice food safety and sanitation.
Food Safety and Sanitation
Here are some general food safety and sanitation guidelines:
- Store food in covered containers
- Keep eating and cooking utensils clean
- If food contacts flood water, throw it out, especially if the flood water is contaminated (which you may or may not know).
- Throw out cooked or refrigerated food that has been at room temperature for 2 hours or more.
- For infants, ready-to-feed formula is easier than trying to mix the powdered stuff. If you do mix formula, use bottled water, or boiled water as a last resort. Breastfeeding is always best for infants, but there are cases when this isn't an option and in high-stress environments (like a natural disaster or emergency) breast milk may not be produced as much as normal.
- Don't eat foods from cans that are swollen, dented, or corroded, even if the food looks safe.
- Don't eat food if it doesn't smell normal, even if the can looks normal. Best to err on the side of caution, if it doesn't smell right, don't eat it.
- For sanitary (and fire) reasons, don't let garbage accumulate inside.
Keeping Food Safe Without Power
- Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. In other words, get things out quickly and close the door/lid.
- If unopened, a good refrigerator will keep things cold for about 4 hours. If the power is out for 4 hours or less, the food should be safe.
- For proper (and safe) food storage, refrigerated or frozen food should be at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Use a refrigerator/freezer to check the temperature.
- Any food that has been at or above 40 degrees Fahrenheit for two or more hours should be discarded.
If you can get dry ice, it can help keep your food cold. Before a power outage, or emergency, find a local vendor where you can buy dry ice. Then, if the power is out in your home or neighborhood, you can purchase dry ice to prolong the life (and safety) of your cold food should the power be out for an extended time.
- 25 pounds of dry ice will keep a 10 cubic-foot freezer below freezing for 3-4 days.
- Don't let the dry ice come in direct contact with the food.
- Use dry, heavy-duty gloves when handling dry ice and be careful to avoid injury.
Food Safety Before the Emergency or Disaster
The normal food supply chain will be disrupted in an emergency. It doesn't even have to be a natural disaster. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a disruption, and some products can still be problematic to find.
Often you'll see the recommendation to have at least a 3-day food supply. I recommend a minimum of 4 days for emergency food. That's actual emergency, quick-prep, easy-to-store food.
You really need to have at least 1 week's worth of food. Two should really be your recommended minimum. And that's food that doesn't require refrigeration or freezing, basically shelf-stable food.
Your "emergency" food storage should:
- Have a long storage life. Not something that expires in a matter of months.
- Require little or no cooking, refrigeration, or water. It utilities are out, or become unreliable, you don't want to risk your health with questionable food safety.
- Make sure special diet needs are met, such as for infants or family members on restricted dietary needs.
- Remember to include food for pets.
- Limit the really salty or spicy food that increase your need for water, which could be in limited supply.
Storing Emergency Food
Remember your food doesn't have to have a 10, 15, 25+ year shelf-life. It should be food you eat. As long as you rotate through your food storage, you can basically keep "normal" food as your food storage. Just replenish what you use, and grab some extra when you go shopping again.
Check the expiration dates. Use and replace food before the expiration.
Home-canned foods usually need to be discarded after a year. But home storage is such a broad subject, and there are a number of storage methods, you need to closely follow the recommendations and instructions provided by the storage product vendor.
Food should be stored in a cool, dry, dark area. The ideal temperature range is 40 - 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat will reduce nutritional quality and can cause food to spoil more quickly.
Keep your food storage away from exhaust areas of ranges, refrigerators, or anywhere there's heat.
Store food away from gasoline, paints, solvents, oil, and other petroleum products. The biggest issue is some food can absorb their smells, which affects the taste.
Make sure to protect your food from rodents and insects. Keeping products inside waterproof or airtight containers will help keep them longer, and protected. Boxes or paper cartons are more susceptible to water damage, as well as insects, and rodents. Keep food stored on shelves that won't affected by flooding.
Preparing Emergency Water
The minimum recommendation is to store at least 1 gallon of water per day per person and pet. More water is needed in hot climates, for those who are sick, and for pregnant women.
Store at least 4-days of water for each person and pet. For example, two parents, two children, and a dog would mean at least five gallons of water per day, or 20 gallons for four days.
Store your water where it will be safe from flooding.
If bottled water has an odor, don't use or drink it. Get a replacement if you can...this is for commercially packaged water.
Like other commercial products, bottle water has an expiration date, and it should be used before that date.
The recommendation is to replace your water storage every 6 months.
Keep a bottle of unscented, non-concentrated, liquid chlorine bleach to use to disinfect water, and for general cleaning and sanitizing. The bleach should be stored in a similar temperature range (no more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21°C). Bleach degrades over time, even unopened bottles. The bleach in opened bottles loses its potency even faster. Unopened bleach should be used and replaced every year.
Does water actually "expire"? If it's stored in clean, sanitized containers and kept sealed it should store for much longer than 6 months. When you open it, if there's discoloration or a smell, don't use or drink it.
What usually happens is water becomes "stale" where it loses its taste. Some aeration--like sloshing it between two containers to add air to the water--can help with the taste. A pinch of salt (not more) might also help. Keeping water replaced every 6 months helps reduce the amount of "stale" water, and it helps you become aware of how well your water storage containers are working.
Before a Power Outage
Refrigerated and freezer foods have safe temperature ranges, and safe times they can be outside of that temperature.
Get thermometers for your refrigerators and freezers. Freezers need to be at or below 0° Fahrenheit. That's below the freezing point (32° F). Refrigerators need to be at or below 40° F. Having the thermometers will let you know if the food is in the safe temperature range.
Keep ice cubes, ice packs, or containers of water in the freezer. In the case of a power outage, this ice can be used in the refrigerator, cooler, or left in the freezer to help keep food cold. The melting ice can also be used for drinking water.
Leftovers, fresh meat, and other food that isn't needed immediately should be put in the freezer so they not only last longer, but if the event of a power outage they'll be at a safer temperature longer.
In the freezer, keep food together which helps the food stay cold longer. Not letting your refrigerator and freezer stay empty not only will help keep them more efficient, but when the power goes out the full fridge or freezer will stay cold longer.
If the power might be out for more than 4 hours, consider transferring food to coolers. The smaller container can be easier to be kept cooler longer.
Knowing where you can buy dry ice or block ice can help keep your food cold. Often power outages are more local, so you can drive to where you can buy ice and bring it back home.
Food Safety During the Emergency or Disaster
- Perishable food was not refrigerated or frozen properly.
- Food came (or might have come) in contact with flood or stormwater.
- There is an unusual odor, color, or texture.
After the Power Outage
- If the freezer has a thermometer, check the temperature and if it's below 40° F the food is safe, and freezer food can be refrozen.
- If there isn't a thermometer, check each package. You can't determine safety by how things look or smell. If the food still has ice crystals or is 40° F or below, it's safe to refreeze or cook.
- Food that has an unusual color, texture, or smell.
- Food in non-waterproof packages.
- Food in cardboard containers, like juice boxes, milk, or baby formula.
- Food containers with snap-lids, crimped caps, twist camps, flip tops, snap tops, or screw caps. These are too difficult to safely disinfect and sanitize the opening without opening the container, which can then potentially contaminate the contents.
- Home canned foods as they can't be safely disinfected.
- Any canned foods or containers that are opened, damaged, or bulging.
- Food containers that, when opened, spurt liquid or foam when opened or which contain discolored, moldy, or bad-smelling food.
Salvaging Commercially Prepared Food
- Remove labels, if possible, and note the expiration date.
- Brush or wipe off any dirt or silt.
- Wash pouches and cans in hot, soapy water.
- Rinse the washed pouches and cans with clean, safe water.