Food safety issues to consider after a flood

Flood waters have invaded the house. As the water recedes, the real clean-up work begins.

How do you clean up such a mess? What are the food and water safety issues? What foods can be saved? How do you determine what food to keep and what to discard?

Safe drinking water

What needs to be done to have safe drinking water after a flood? If bottled water is available that has not been exposed to the flood waters, use it for drinking, preparing food, cooking and washing dishes until safe drinking water is available.

If bottled water is not available, it will be necessary to boil water to make it safe for use. Boiling water will kill most of the disease-causing organisms that may be present. If the water is cloudy, filter it through clean cloths and allow it to settle. Drain off only the clear water to boil. Boil the water for 1 minute, allow the water to cool and store it in clean, covered containers.

If it is not possible to boil water, it can be disinfected using chlorine bleach. Unfortunately, bleach will kill some of the disease-causing organisms, but not all of them. If the water is cloudy, filter it through clean cloths or allowed to settle. Use the clear water that can be draw off the top to disinfect. Add 1/8 teaspoon (or 8 drops) of regular, unscented, liquid chlorine bleach for each gallon of water, stir it well. Allow the water to stand for 30 minutes before using it. Store the disinfected water in clean containers with covers.

If you have a well that has been flooded, the water will need to be tested and disinfected once the flood waters have receded. If you suspect the well water is contaminated, contact the local or state health department for specific advice on what to do.

Preparing your kitchen

If the flood waters have invaded the kitchen and food storage areas, clean up needs to start by establishing a clean area to prepare food. Starting in the kitchen, thoroughly wash all countertops and food prep areas with hot soapy water, if hot water is available. Then rinse and make a sanitizing solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water or the cleanest and clearest water available. Apply the sanitizing solution to all the countertops and food preparation areas and allow to air dry.

With clean and sanitized work spaces, now move to washing ceramic, glass, and metal pots, pans, dishes, and utensils, including can openers and mandolins. Use hot soapy water, if the hot water is available. To rinse and sanitize these dishes, it will be necessary to make a sanitizing solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid, chlorine bleach to one gallon of drinking water or the cleanest and clearest water available. Bring this solution to a boil and boil the dishes for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes allow the dishes to air-dry.

Food safety

Michigan State University Extension recommends you DO NOT eat any food that has been in contact with the flood water.

For food that was not in a waterproof container, if there is any chance that it came in contact with the flood water, it needs to be thrown away. Food containers that are not water proof are those with screw-caps, snap lids, and crimped caps. Discard any cardboard juice/milk/baby formula boxes and home canned foods, if they were in contact with flood waters because they cannot be effectively cleaned and sanitized.

Inspect all canned foods and throw away any damaged cans. Damage to canned foods includes swelling, leakage, puncture, holes, fractures, extensive deep rusting, or crushing/denting that is severe enough to prohibit the stacking of the cans. Another indication of extensive damage is if the can cannot be opened using a manual, wheel-style can opener.

What foods can be saved? What can you do salvage all-metal cans and retort pouches?

Undamaged, commercially prepared foods in all-metal cans or retort pouches such as flexible, shelf-stable juice or seafood pouches can be saved by doing the following:

  • If labels are removable, remove them because they will hide dirt and bacteria.
  • Thoroughly wash cans or retort pouches with soap and water, using hot water if it is available.
  • Brush or wipe away any dirt or silt.
  • Rinse the cans or retort pouches with water that is safe for drinking because any leftover soap or dirt will reduce the effectiveness of chlorine sanitation.
  • Next, sanitize them in one of the two following ways:
    • Place in water and allow the water to come to a boil and continue to boil for 2 minutes.
    • Or place in a freshly made solution of 1 tablespoon unscented, liquid. Chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water (or the cleanest, clearest water available) for 15 minutes.
  • Allow the cans or retort pouches to air-dry for a minimum of 1 hour before opening or storing.
  • Any cans or retort pouches that have lost their labels need to be re-labeled using a marker. If there is an expiration date, that needs to be included.
  • All food in reconditioned cans or retort pouches needs to be used as soon as possible.
  • Any concentrated baby formula in reconditioned, all-metal containers must be diluted with clean, drinking water.

Finally, once the flood waters have started to recede, and safe drinking water has been established, the slow process of cleaning up begins. This article has provided some information on what food to keep and what to throw away as well as information on cleaning up a food preparation, and kitchen area, and pots, pans, ceramic dishes, and utensils to avoid the possibility of foodborne illness after a flood.  When it comes to food safety, when in doubt, throw it out!

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