Flooding from Hurricane Michael creates food safety issues across South
Strong winds and heavy rain continue to wreak havoc across parts of the South today as Hurricane Michael meanders out of Georgia and heads up the mid-Atlantic Coast.
The storm posted historic numbers when it slammed into Florida about 1:30 p.m. EDT yesterday as a Category 4 hurricane. The National Hurricane Center reported Michael’s sustained winds were near 155 mph as the eye of the storm moved ashore near Mexico City, FL. According to NOAA’s historical hurricane tracks database, Michael is the first Category 4 storm to make landfall along the Florida Panhandle since records began in 1851.
In addition to the devastating damage that is immediately visible today, less obvious hazards in the wake of the massive storm are expected to last weeks. Food safety dangers come in various forms and can cause severe illnesses and deaths as floodwaters recede.
Among the most vulnerable foods are fresh fruits and vegetables. They are breeding grounds for pathogens when power outages cause the loss of refrigeration and temperature control. Fresh produce that comes into contact with floodwater can be instantly contaminated with a wide range of bacteria, viruses and parasites.
The toxic composition of floodwater is such a serious food safety hazard that federal law prohibits the sale, distribution or donation of any produce or other food crops from fields that are flooded. Special inspections are required before such crops can even be used for animal feed.
The Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local health agencies all urge the public to destroy any home grown food that has been touched by floodwater. People in flooded areas should also exercise extreme caution when buying fresh produce from roadside stands and farmers markets in flooded areas.
Regardless if food is from a backyard garden or a large commercial farm, there is no way for it to be cleaned for safe consumption if it has been compromised by floodwater.
Other storm food safety tips from public agencies include steps to take before and after severe weather.
Steps to follow in advance of losing power:
Keep appliance thermometers in both the refrigerator and the freezer to ensure temperatures remain food safe during a power outage. Safe temperatures are 40°F or lower in the refrigerator, 0°F or lower in the freezer.
Freeze water in one-quart plastic storage bags or small containers prior to a storm. These containers are small enough to fit around the food in the refrigerator and freezer to help keep food cold. Remember, water expands when it freezes, so don’t overfill the containers.
Freeze refrigerated items, such as leftovers, milk and fresh meat and poultry that you may not need immediately—this helps keep them at a safe temperature longer.
Know where you can get dry ice or block ice.
Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerator food cold if the power will be out for more than four hours.
Group foods together in the freezer—this ‘igloo’ effect helps the food stay cold longer.
Keep a few days’ worth of ready-to-eat foods that do not require cooking or cooling.
Steps to follow if the power goes out:
Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. A refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours if the door is kept closed. A full freezer will hold its temperature for about 48 hours (24 hours if half-full).
Place meat and poultry to one side of the freezer or on a tray to prevent cross contamination of thawing juices.
Use dry or block ice to keep the refrigerator as cold as possible during an extended power outage. Fifty pounds of dry ice should keep a fully-stocked 18-cubic-feet freezer cold for two days.
Food safety after a flood:
Do not eat any food that may have come into contact with flood water—this would include raw fruits and vegetables, cartons of milk or eggs.
Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with flood water. Food containers that are not waterproof include those packaged in plastic wrap or cardboard, or those with screw‐caps, snap lids, pull tops and crimped caps. Flood waters can enter into any of these containers and contaminate the food inside. Also, discard cardboard juice/milk/baby formula boxes and home-canned foods if they have come in contact with flood water, because they cannot be effectively cleaned and sanitized.
Inspect canned foods and 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.
Steps to follow after a weather emergency:
Check the temperature inside of your refrigerator and freezer. Discard any perishable food (such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs or leftovers) that has been above 40°F for two hours or more.
Check each item separately. Throw out any food that has an unusual odor, color or texture or feels warm to the touch.
Check frozen food for ice crystals. The food in your freezer that partially or completely thawed may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is 40°F or below.
Never taste a food to decide if it’s safe.
When in doubt, throw it out.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has a YouTube video “Food Safety During Power Outages” that includes instructions for keeping frozen and refrigerated food safe. The publication “A Consumer’s Guide to Food Safety: Severe Storms and Hurricanes” can be downloaded and printed for reference during a power outage. Infographics on FSIS’ Flickr page outline steps you can take before, during and after severe weather, power outages and flooding.