Safe Handling of Food after a Hurricane or Related Disaster
The follow is a summary of general recommendations to protect the safety of food and water in the event of a hurricane. It is made available through the State Food Scientists and County Faculty who serve you through UF/IFAS.
Assess whether any food items have become contaminated or whether perishable foods have been held at an unsafe temperature due to a power outage. See the “Food Handling” section below for further procedures.
WHAT TO DISCARD
Carefully evaluate which food to discard. Remember to follow these two adages: it is better to be safe than sorry and when in doubt, throw it out. Discard all food products that may have come in direct contact with flood-waters, may have otherwise become contaminated, or may have been stored at an unsafe temperature.
FOLLOW GOOD SANITATION PROCEDURES
When handling food, use appropriate precautions so as not contaminate the food. This includes washing your hands (using clean, purified water) before handling food, and preventing cross contamination of food by avoiding contaminated surfaces or objects. In extreme conditions where the purified or potable water supply is strictly limited, the hands may be washed in non-potable water followed by the use of a hand sanitizer or hand sanitizer wipe in accordance with label recommendations.
RECOMMENDED ORDER OF FOOD USAGE
In general, if there has been a power outage, it is recommended that perishable foods from the refrigerator or pantry be used first. Then use the foods from the freezer, followed by non-perishable food supplies. The following guideline can be used to estimate the approximate time that food may be held at appropriate cold temperatures in:
- Refrigerator: if kept closed, approximately 4 hours;
- Full freezer: if kept closed, approximately 48 hours;
- Half full freezer: if kept closed, approximately 24 hours; and
- Dry ice: 2 to 3 days.
HOW TO HANDLE SPECIFIC FOOD CATEGORIES
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
If exposed to flood waters, all fresh fruits and vegetables, garden produce, and related fresh foods should be discarded. If contaminated, these foods cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized.
- Refrigerated food
In general, if there is a power outage, a well-insulated freezer or refrigerator will maintain refrigeration or freezing temperatures for several hours, provided that the door is kept closed and only opened as often as necessary. However, it is recommended that you monitor the temperature of the refrigerator periodically. Remember that you cannot rely on appearance or odor to determine whether a food will make you sick. Your only indication of safety is temperature control. If the refrigerator temperature has risen above 41°F (5°C) for two (2) hours or more, discard all perishable foods. If you are returning to the house after an evacuation of several days and the refrigerator is above 41°F (5C) upon your return, discard perishable foods, as you have no indication of the length of time the food has been at an unsafe temperature. A partial list of foods, normally found in a home refrigerator, have been categorized as perishable vs. more stable, less perishable in Table 2.
- Frozen food
Examine frozen food for evidence of thawing. This should be done with care. As above, the rule of thumb of food safety is that food not be above 41°F (5°C) for 2 hours or more. This also applies to frozen foods. Thus, just because the food has thawed does not mean it is unsafe. It is the total time and temperature that it is held at in the unfrozen state. If upon returning from an evacuation, the temperature of the freezer is at 41°F (5°C) or above, and all food has thoroughly thawed, simply discard the food unless you have an accurate indication of how long the food had been under these conditions. However, food that has been thawed and refrozen, due to the power cycling off and on over an extended time period, is more difficult to assess for damage given its time and temperature history. Thus, if you have reason to suspect that the food has been thawed and refrozen over an extended time period, the safest plan is to discard it. If you have reasonable certainty that the temperature in the freezer had not been above 41°F (5°C) for 2 hours or more, the following recommendations can be followed:
- Partially frozen food (with ice crystals in the center) should be safe. In addition, such food that contains ice crystals may be refrozen (when the power comes back on) without concern.
- Fully thawed food (no ice crystals) can be consumed, provided that it has not been held for 2 hours or more at 41°F (5°C). Such thawed food may be cooked, then refrozen, provided that it has been held at 41°F (5°C) or less for no more than two (2) days.
- Commercially canned and bottled foods
- Risk of food contamination. In the event of a flood, canned foods and beverages in metal (including pull top cans) or glass containers run the risk of becoming contaminated if exposed to flood waters. Use extreme care and discard any screw capped bottles, snap-lid cans, and similar containers which have been exposed to flood waters. To sanitize the outside of metal cans prior to opening, remove the labels and follow one of the following procedures:
- Sanitizing the outside of food containers. Tightly sealed metal cans with no evidence of bulging, swelling, seeping, or other damage may be safe for use, provided that the outside of the containers are carefully and thoroughly cleaned with a detergent, and sanitized prior to opening.
- Handling and storage of sanitized containers. Following sanitizing, relabel (using a permanent marker) and store the cans where they will not be recontaminated. As metal cans that have been sanitized may rust, it is imperative that they be used as soon as possible. As an additional precaution, thoroughly cook the food products from these cans.
- Home canned foods
The seals of home canned foods may not be as tight or complete as those on commercially canned food products. Thus, it is generally recommended that if home canned foods have been exposed to flood-waters or otherwise contaminated, they should be discarded.
- Dehydrated foods (e.g., dry or powdered)
Dry foods which have become wet by contact with flood or rain water should be discarded. Other dry foods, if properly stored to avoid contamination, are generally considered safe.