There’s a storm coming, and not just in a metaphorical sense. In the past week, tornadoes have ripped through a swath of the South, taking lives, leveling buildings, and knocking out power in its path. While breakfast may be the last thing on people’s minds as they pick up the pieces of their lives, access to nourishing, safe food is more essential than ever. A natural disaster can put that in peril by contaminating packaged food (yes, even cans) and cooking gear with waste and flood water, or leaving meat, dairy, eggs, and cooked dishes at temperatures that allow bacteria to grow.
In an ideal world, you’ll never have cause to need this information, but just in case, here are a few things you should know about food safety in an emergency.
Avoid the danger zone
The USDA refers to temperatures between 40°F and 140°F as the “danger zone,” because bacteria levels can grow quickly, sometimes doubling in as little as 20 minutes. That can be tough to maintain when the power is out. A full freezer stays colder for longer (ice packs and plastic bags of water work well to fill up space), and if the door stays closed, it can maintain a safe temperature for 48 hours. If you do have a chance to prep ahead, stock up on dry or block ice. The USDA advises that 50 pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic-foot, full-up freezer for two days.
On the fridge front, you’ve got just four hours before things get dicey. Open the door as little as possible, and move what you can to the freezer or to coolers stocked with ice. If you can’t consume it in that timeframe (grills and many gas burners will still likely work if the power is down), toss it out. That especially goes for cream-filled pastries, cut fruit, opened juice, yogurt, deli meat, and cooked dishes like casseroles. Wasting food sucks, but getting sick in the middle of chaos is no great shakes.
If you’re hell bent on saving it all, milk, cheese, butter, tubes of dough, bread, and eggs in the shell can all be frozen, should you care to transfer them over quickly. Just know that some of these might have some textural differences once they’re thawed out for use, and that milk expands and may need some headspace. Sling that bacon and sausage in there while you’re at it, making sure it’s tightly wrapped to avoid freezer burn.
Here’s the package deal
You stocked up on canned, boxed, and bottled goods and that’s great—but they may or may not be safe to consume, depending on the way they’re packaged. If a non-waterproof package has come into contact with flood water, it’s gotta go. The USDA advises that non-waterproof packages include those with screw-caps, snap lids, pull tops, and crimped caps. Cardboard juice, milk, and baby formula boxes as well as home canned foods can’t be safely cleaned, so they should be tossed. (Sorry, grandma’s precious peach preserves, but you’re toast.)
All-metal cans and retort pouches (like the kind with juice or tuna in them) can be salvaged by being washed of any dirt and stripped of labels, then boiled for two minutes or soaked for 15 minutes in a solution of one tablespoon of bleach to each gallon of water. If the packaging seems funky in any way, let it go.
To forestall any sadness on this front, if you know potentially perilous weather conditions are on the way, store the goods on a high shelf, or in a lidded, waterproof container.
Scrub it up, down, and sideways
Any surface or object that’s been sullied should be scrubbed and soaped with hot water, then sanitized with the same boiling method or water-and-bleach solution—but some cannot be saved, like wooden cutting boards and plastic utensils. Chuck 'em.
Once the danger has passed and the fridge has been cleaned out, remove any shelves and brackets and clean them with the bleach solution. Then scrub down the interior of the fridge with baking soda and hot water, then rinse with yes, the bleach solution, then leave the door open for 15 minutes. And if the freezer or refrigeration has been submerged even partially, the USDA recommends that it should be thrown out. No one wants to be faced with that, so if you have time to prep ahead, get several of your brawniest friends to help you lift the appliance up onto blocks.
Should any new developments in food safety arise in the near future, hopefully the USDA will remain at liberty to share them with the public.