Food safety tips for those caught up in Hurricane Nicole

Tropical Storm Nicole is expected to form into a hurricane today and hit the east coast of Florida tonight. Those who find themselves in the storm’s path should prepare for the potential damage and the associated health risks.

Food safety risks are easy to overlook, but prolonged power outages and flood damage are major risks to your food and your health. Here are some useful tips that can help you and your family protect against foodborne illnesses during a hurricane.

Tips from USDA and FDA:

Action plan before a storm:

  • Buy ice packs and coolers days before the hurricane hits in case there is an extended power outage.
  • Pour water into containers and freeze to make ice cream.
  • Use a device thermometer to determine the safety of your perishable food. Meat, poultry, fish and egg products must be kept at 40 F or below and frozen foods at 0 F or below.
  • For meat, check the canning section of your local grocery store for canned meat. These are fully cooked and unopened canned meats that do not require refrigeration.

during a storm

Store food at recommended temperatures. Remember that perishable foods like meat, poultry, seafood, milk, and eggs that aren’t kept at recommended temperatures can make you ill — even if they’re thoroughly cooked.

Do not eat or drink anything that has been in contact with flood waters, including food packaged in non-metallic containers.

How to disinfect food cans:

  • Remove labels from cans that may harbor dirt and germs, wash and submerge cans in a solution of 1 cup (8 oz/250 ml) unscented household bleach (5.25% strength) in 5 gallons of water.
  • Allow the cans to air dry.
  • Re-label the cans with a marker. Enter the expiration date.

How to disinfect containers, countertops, pots, pans, dishes and utensils:

  • Thoroughly wash, rinse and disinfect everything that may come into contact with food – for example pans, dishes, utensils and countertops. Throw away wooden cutting boards or bowls – these cannot be safely sanitized.
  • Mix 1 tablespoon of unscented liquid household bleach (5.25% strength) with 1 gallon of water.
  • Soak the item in the solution for 15 minutes.
  • Allow to air dry.

How to make tap water drinkable:

After a natural disaster, the water may no longer be drinkable. The local health authorities decide whether the tap water can be used for drinking. If the water is undrinkable or questionable, follow these instructions:

  1. Use bottled water that has not been flooded if available.
  2. If you don’t have bottled water, you should boil water to make it safe. Boiling water kills most types of disease-causing organisms that may be present. If the water is cloudy, filter through clean cloths or allow to settle and drain clear water to boil. Boil the water for a minute, allow to cool and store in clean containers with lids.
  3. If you can’t boil water, you can disinfect it with household bleach. Bleach kills some, but not all, types of disease-causing organisms that may be in the water. Filter cloudy water through clean cloths or let it settle and tap off clear water for disinfection. Add 1/8 teaspoon (or 8 drops) of unscented liquid household bleach (5.25% strength) per gallon of water, stir well and let sit 30 minutes before using. Store sanitized water in clean containers with lids.
  4. If you have a well that has flooded, the water should be tested and disinfected after the flood waters subside. If you suspect your well may be contaminated, contact your local or state health department or agricultural adviser for specific advice.

After a storm

If the water supply is still unsafe, boil water or use bottled water.

Once power is restored, check the temperature in your fridge and freezer. You can safely eat or refreeze food in the freezer if it is below 40°F.

If your freezer doesn’t come with a thermometer, check the temperature of each food item. If the item still has ice crystals or is at or below 40 F, you can safely refreeze it.

Discard any perishable food — e.g. meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk — that has been stored in a refrigerator or freezer at or above 40 F for 2 hours or more.

When in doubt, throw it away.

Peasants in the path of the storm

Those in Hurricane Nicole’s path include farmers and their fields of crops grown for human consumption. The US Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has several resources to assist growers who may be affected by the effects of severe weather conditions on their crops.

The FDA’s Guidance for Industry: Evaluating the Safety of Flood-Affected Food Crops for Human Consumption provides the information manufacturers can use when evaluating potential harm to their food crops. This guide is an important resource for the growers who produce and market these crops, as they have a responsibility to ensure the safety of flood-affected food crops for human consumption.

The FDA reminds harvest workers that, in general, if the edible portion of a crop is exposed to contaminated floodwater, it is considered “adulterated” under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and should not enter the human food supply. This applies to all food crops including underground crops (e.g. peanuts, co-potatoes). For crops that have been in or near flooded areas, but where the floodwaters have NOT come in contact with the edible parts of the crops, growers should assess the safety of the crops for human consumption on a case-by-case basis for potential concerns regarding check food safety.

Sometimes crops that have been harvested and subsequently deemed unfit for human consumption can be salvaged for animal feed.

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