Food safety tips for areas affected by flooding or hurricanes

By: By Leitha Lee - Contributing columnist

Here are a few tips I found from the USDA to help us stay safe when we have weather that is out of our control. You may never have to deal with these hazards, but someone in your family in another state might be effected by these conditions, and you could share this information with them.

To keep food safe after a flood:

Do not eat any food that may have come in contact with flood water. This would include raw fruits and vegetables and cartons of milk or eggs. Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container, if there is a chance that it has come into contact with flood water. Food containers that are not waterproof include those packages 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, or wheel-type can opener.

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 inside the refrigerator; 0° F or lower in the freezer. Freeze water in one- quart plastic storage bags or smaller 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 leftover 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 to stay cold longer. Keep a few day’s 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.

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 more than two hours. 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 is safe.

When in doubt, throw it out. I encourage anyone with questions about the safety of their food as a result of weather damage and power outages to call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline (888-mpHotline or 888-674-6854 Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET or email them at

You may contact Lethia Lee at Sampson County Cooperative Extension 910-592-7161.

Leitha Lee Lee

By Leitha Lee

Contributing columnist

Lethia Lee is the EFNEP Program Assistant for the Expanded Food Nutrition Education Program with the Sampson County Cooperative Extension Center.

Lethia Lee is the EFNEP Program Assistant for the Expanded Food Nutrition Education Program with the Sampson County Cooperative Extension Center.