My home was flooded, impacting food I had stored in cabinets, my pantry, and my fridge. As my home dries out, what do I do with the food?
Many Ohioans have experienced similar problems recently as heavy rains, flash floods, and flooding have caused water-soaked homes and businesses, and evacuation situations across the state.
Because your question is very similar to others that were asked in previous “Chow Line” columns, it’s best answered by reissuing a combination of those columns here.
If your home becomes flooded, it is important to throw away any food that might have come into contact with floodwater. That includes cartons of milk, juice, or eggs, and any raw vegetables and fruits. In fact, unless they were in a waterproof container, any foods in your home that came into contact with floodwater need to be thrown out.
Floodwater can seep into and contaminate foods packaged in plastic wrap or cardboard, or stored in containers with screw-on caps, snap lids, or pull tops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
The best way to avoid the potential for foodborne illness in such cases is to throw away all foods not contained in waterproof packaging. That includes any foods in your pantry, cabinets, fridge, and freezer that came into contact with floodwater.
Canned goods also need to be inspected for damage due to flooding. Throw away any cans with swelling, leakage, punctures, or deep rusting, or those that are crushed or severely dented and can’t be opened with a can opener.
Foodborne bacteria can cause illness. Symptoms will occur usually within one to three days of eating the contaminated food. However, symptoms can also occur within 20 minutes or up to six weeks later, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In the case of a power outage without flooding, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible. If not opened, a refrigerator without power will keep food cold for about four hours. A half-full freezer will hold its temperature for about 24 hours, and for 48 hours if the freezer is full, the USDA says.
If the power is out more than four hours, you can store refrigerated foods in a cooler with dry ice or block ice. You can also use dry ice or block ice in the fridge to keep it as cold as possible during an extended power outage, according to the FDA.
Generally speaking, perishable foods that have been at temperatures of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for two hours or more will need to be discarded to avoid the potential for foodborne illnesses. This is because food that isn’t maintained at proper temperatures can enter the “danger zone,” a range of temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees at which bacteria grows most rapidly.
According to FoodSafety.gov, here is the list of perishable foods you need to discard if they’ve been at 40 degrees or higher for two hours or more:
- Meat, poultry, and seafood products
- Soft cheeses and shredded cheeses
- Milk, cream, yogurt, and other dairy products
- Opened baby formula
- Eggs and egg products
- Dough and cooked pasta
- Cooked or cut produce
FoodSafety.gov says the following perishable foods are generally OK to keep after they’ve been held at 40 degrees or higher for more than two hours:
- Hard cheeses such as cheddar, colby, Swiss, Parmesan, provolone, and Romano
- Grated Parmesan, Romano, or a combination of both in a can or a jar
- Butter and margarine
- Opened fruit juices
- Opened, canned fruits
- Jelly, relish, taco sauce, mustard, ketchup, olives, and pickles
- Worcestershire, soy, barbecue, and hoisin sauces
- Peanut butter
- Opened, vinegar-based dressings
- Breads, rolls, cakes, muffins, quick breads, and tortillas
- Breakfast foods such as waffles, pancakes, and bagels
- Fruit pies
- Fresh mushrooms, herbs, and spices
- Uncut, raw vegetables and fruits
Another safety rule of thumb is to throw away any food that has an unusual odor, color, or texture, or feels warm to the touch, the USDA advises. The USDA and the FDA offer these other tips for safe food handling after a power outage:
- Check the temperatures inside of your refrigerator and freezer. Throw away any perishable foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, or leftovers that have been above 40 degrees for two hours or more.
- Check each item separately. Throw away any food that feels warm to the touch or has an unusual odor, color, or texture.
- Check frozen food for ice crystals. The food in your freezer that partially or completely thawed can be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40 degrees or below.
- Remember, when in doubt about the safety of the food item, throw it out. Never taste the food to decide if it is safe to eat, the USDA says. Refrigerated food should be safe as long as the power was out for no more than four hours and the refrigerator door was kept shut, according to the FDA.
Experts agree: One way to be prepared in the event of an extended power outage is to keep a few days’ worth of ready-to-eat foods that don’t require cooking or cooling. And keep a supply of bottled water stored where it will be safe from floodwater.
Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line author Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor: This column was originally reviewed by Sanja Ilic, specialist in food safety for Ohio State University Extension, and Kate Shumaker, an OSU Extension educator and registered dietitian.