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Prevent Foodborne Illness During Natural Disasters

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how to avoid foodborne illnesses in a natural disaster Andres Rodriguez/PhotoSpin

October of 2012 will be remembered as ending on a howling note -- as in the howling of winds and the surging of floods -- with Hurricane Sandy pounding the East Coast.

Hurricanes and other weather disasters may make some of us feel smug about our safer geographical locations, but any forces of nature, anywhere, should get us to thinking about emergency preparedness.

So even though it is a glorious day in the desert where I am, I wanted to share these excellent tips on food supplies and food safety during emergencies. In the aftermath of weather-related power outages, it’s all too common for food to spoil and foodborne illnesses to result.

Become familiar with this information from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and FoodSafety.gov:

1. Stock up on bottled water in the event the public water supply becomes contaminated.

2. If you don’t have bottled water, make tap water safe to drink by boiling it for one minute, then storing it in clean, covered containers.

3. Set aside a large, waterproof container that is filled with single-serve, nonperishable items from the various food groups.

Suggestions include:

- small cereal boxes

- granola bars

- trail mix

- chips

- fruit cups

- juice boxes

- dried fruit

- pudding cups

- soy milk in aseptic containers

- peanut butter and cans of tuna

Also note that non-meat, non-mayonnaise sandwiches along with cut-up raw vegetables and whole fruit can all last a few days without refrigeration.

4. During a power outage, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed and open them only when necessary.

5. General rules of thumb on which chilled foods are safe to eat after the power is restored:

- Items in the refrigerator are okay if power is restored within four hours. But if the interior temperature has reached 45 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, foods like eggs, milk, soft cheeses, uncooked meat and fish, and cooked dishes most likely have spoiled and should be tossed.

- Items in the freezer are OK for two days without power, as long as the freezer is relatively full and the door has remained closed. Items in a half-full freezer should be discarded if one day without power has elapsed.

6. Be aware that many kitchen items cannot be safely cleaned and sanitized after exposure to floodwaters. You should throw out wooden cutting boards, wooden and plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers.

7. Countertops that have come into contact with floodwaters need to be sanitized thoroughly, down to every crack and crevice, using a bleach-and-water solution. Also pay attention to door handles and door seals.

8. Many pantry items need to be discarded after floodwater damage, including anything packed in plastic, paper and cardboard. Even items with screw-caps and flip tops cannot be disinfected.

9. Listen for updated announcements about the safety of the local water supply.

If you are concerned about having possibly contracted a water- or food-borne illness, keep in mind these symptoms as listed by the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse:

- vomiting

- diarrhea

- abdominal pain

- fever and chills

The duration and severity of these symptoms can vary according to the type of bacteria that prompted them.

In all matters regarding the potential spread of bacteria and the prevention of illness after a natural disaster, caution and common sense should prevail. If in doubt, throw it out.


“Foodborne Illnesses.” National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Web. 29 October 2012.

“In an Emergency.” FoodSafety.gov. Web. 29 October 2012.

“Keep Food Safe During Emergencies.” Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ EatRight.org. Web. 29 October 2012.

“Food Safety in the Home After a Hurricane and/or Flooding.” HomeFoodSafety.org. Web. 29 October 2012.

Reviewed October 30, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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