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Food Safety in the Time of Hurricanes

Posted in Food Safety,Water on September 18, 2018

For many people across the United States, the end of summer means long, warm evenings, days that grow steadily shorter, and a changing of gears in anticipation of the fall. Schools are filling back up; Starbucks is debuting their usual suite of seasonal latte flavors; and sweaters are back in style.

There’s a flip side, of course. For many people living in the western United States, the end of summer means fire season – hot, dry days before the rains start again at the end of October. For people living along the east coast and the Gulf, the principal threat is water and wind instead of water. Put another way, it’s hurricane season. At least until November.

There’s much to be done in preparation for a hurricane, and if you live in an area that’s prone to them, you’re likely more than prepared to put up boards on your windows and tune your radios to the emergency broadcast channel. You have your bottles of water. And likely, you also have a watchful eye on how your roof has been doing as of late.

One important aspect of hurricane prep that sometimes goes neglected is food safety. That’s where we step in: we’ve prepared a list of steps to take and things to know in anticipation of a hurricane so that you don’t get sick from a foodborne illness during a storm or in its aftermath.

  • The first and perhaps most important thing to remember: Don’t eat anything that’s come into contact with flood water. Flood water is full of all sorts of microscopic living things: many of them are effectively harmless, but many others are pathogenic and dangerous to your health. During a major flood event, the waters will be mixed will runoff from rainwater collection, from the sewers, and from anything else they’ve come into contact with. They’re also liable to be tainted with all sorts of industrial chemicals and compounds from machinery and storage in people’s businesses and homes. You should consider flood water to be toxic, even if it looks clean, and act accordingly when deciding what in your fridge or pantry you’re going to save or throw out after a flood.
  • Consider the packaging: Not all food is packaged the same. If you’re sorting through food that’s been damaged in a flood, you’ll have to make decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of. Those decisions will probably involve food that’s packaged in plastic, in cardboard, or in metal cans. Act decisively and err on the side of caution. Cardboard, cloth, plastic, and paper are for the most part permeable packaging – the floodwater can either get through the packaging itself, as is the case with the former three, or through spaces in packaging that’s not explicitly designed to be air- and watertight, as is the case with plastic. You should be able to see that the food’s water damaged. Chuck all this stuff out.
  • Consider the lid: Most lids that appear to be air or water tight aren’t robust enough to protect against the spread of biological and chemical contaminants through floodwater. Lids that snap, twist, crimp or flip aren’t going to be impervious to flood water. Throw these products out if you suspect that they’ve been damaged. Home-canned products should similar be binned. You can’t effectively disinfect these products, so it’s best to ditch them if you’re unsure.
  • If it’s in a can, it might be OK (BUT don’t necessarily trust it): Products that have been canned in a metal tin are usually more watertight than their metal- or plastic-packaged counterparts. Remove the labels, wash thoroughly with soap and water, and disinfect with bleach. Be sure to check to make sure the can’s integrity wasn’t compromised in the flood – you don’t want any floodwater (or bleach) getting inside if you’re still planning on eating it.
  • Disinfect the kitchen after: In the event that floodwaters reach the space that you use to prepare food, you’ll need to embark on a pretty serious disinfection regime after the fact to make it safe again. Get rid of anything wood, including utensils and cutting boards. Ditto for permeable plastic products like baby pacifiers. These products can’t be safely disinfected and will need to be thrown out. Thoroughly wash everything else: metal pots and pans, counter surfaces and sinks, and especially the hard-to-reach places where moisture can sometimes persist, like door seals and joints. All of these areas are potential breeding grounds for bacteria if you don’t attend to them.
  • Attend to your refrigerator: You’ve got about four hours of cold air in the event that your power goes out and your refrigerator stops running. Keep it closed for the duration of these four hours to maintain the cold air inside. You may be able to prolong cold air maintenance if you have some dry ice on hand. After your power is back on, open the fridge and check the thermometer: if it’s still below 40 degrees, you may be in the clear, although it’s probably still a good idea to get rid of perishable products like meat. If it’s above 40 degrees, you’ll probably want to get rid of basically everything inside the fridge. And if the floodwaters reach your fridge, it’s toast – it can’t be effectively disinfected and should probably be replaced.

By following these tips and tricks, you can reduce the risk that you’ll fall ill with a food-related illness during or after a hurricane event. Remember to exercise caution when making decisions about what to throw out: safe is better than sorry. Follow the adage, “when in doubt, throw it out.” Food does you little good if it makes you sick, and illnesses that would be treatable under normal conditions can be much scarier if the electrical grid is compromised, flooding has complicated access to medical facilities, or emergency services aren’t available. Be safe, exercise good judgement, and you should be more than prepared for anything a hurricane can throw at your food.

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)