Food Safety & Sanitation: Before, During, and After a Natural Disaster or Emergency

Food Safety

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.

Dry Ice

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 items in a box. Image is by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Kyle Johnson, retrieved from https://www.kunsan.af.mil/News/Art/igphoto/2002222944/ -- Public domain

Food Safety During the Emergency or Disaster

First, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. A good refrigerator should keep food cold--within the safe temperature range--for up to 4 hours...if the refrigerator isn't opened.

A full-freezer will stay in the safe temperature range for up to 48 hours (only up to 24 hours if the freezer is half full), if the freezer is closed.

Buying dry or block ice can help. If the outage will be longer than a few hours, consider how you can keep the temperature range. And 18 cubic-foot, full freezer can be kept cold for two days with fifty pounds of dry ice.

While food is still at a safe temperature, it should be thoroughly cooked to the minimum safe internal temperature to kill any foodborne bacteria.

If at any point food is at or above 40° F for 2 hours or longer, discard it.

Contrary to what some may say, in a snowstorm it's best to not store perishable food in snow. Temperatures vary and food can be exposed to unsanitary conditions and animals. The better option is to make ice by filling buckets, containers, or cans with water and place those out in the snow to freeze. Then use this ice to keep your food cold in your refrigerator, freezer, or coolers.

As a safety note, if you use a food or drink container for a non-food item, like gasoline, don't reuse the container for food. And don't recycle it.
Food Safety After the Emergency or Disaster

Throw out food if:
  • 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

When the power comes back on:
  • 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.
For refrigerated foods, the food should still be safe if the power was out for less than four hours and the door was kept shut. Perishable foods (leftovers, eggs, fish, meat, etc.) that have been at or above 40° F for two or more hours need to be discarded. If the temperature is 90° F or higher, discard the food after 1 hour.

Remember to throw out perishable foods if the refrigerator's power has been off for more than 4 hours.

Throw out perishable foods in the freezer if they have thawed.

Freezer food that still has ice crystals and feels refrigerator cold can be safely refrozen or cooked,
After a Flood

Floodwaters have all kinds of potential contaminants. Don't consume any food that has, or may have, come in contact with flood or stormwater.

Throw out:
  • 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.

When in doubt, throw it out.

Flooded home in Denham Springs, LA. Image, James Fountain, USGS Public domain

Salvaging Commercially Prepared Food

Sometimes commercially prepared food can be safely salvaged after being exposed to flood or storm waters. The food packaging that might be safely salvaged are cans or metal pouches (such as the flexible, shelf-stable juice packaging).

To salvage:

First, clean the package--
  • 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.
Second, sanitize the package. You have two options. 

Place the package in a solution of 1 cup (8 oz/240 mL) of unscented household bleach in 5 gallons of water for at least 15 minutes. Or, put the package in a pot of water, boil the water for 2 minutes.

Finally, re-label the packaging with a marker and include the expiration date. Then use the food in the pouches or cans as soon as possible. 

The above information is found at Food Safety in a Disaster or Emergency



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