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Food Safety and Survival After A Disaster or Emergency
Updated: Sunday, 03 January 2010

Did you know that a flood, fire, national disaster, or the loss of power from high winds, snow, or ice could jeopardize the safety of your food? Knowing how to determine if food is safe and how to keep food safe will insure you and your families survival incase of a sudden disaster or power outage and, reduce the risk of food borne illness. This guide will provide helpful tips that can help you keep your family and food supply safe during an emergency survival situation or power outage.

Isn't food safe if it doesn't smell bad? - NO!

Food may not be safe to eat during or after an emergency. Many foodborne illnesses and bacteria can contaminate food, food containers and cooking surfaces. Your survival and your families survival after a disaster means protecting your health.

Campylobacter is the second most common cause of foodborne illness in the United States after Salmonella. This is one of many bacteria that can threaten your survival after a disaster.

Campylobacter is the second most common cause of foodborne illness in the United States after Salmonella. Over 3,000 cases were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2003, or 12.6 cases for each 100,000 persons in the population. Many more cases go undiagnosed and unreported, with estimates as high as 2 to 4 million cases per year.
Courtesy of

Flood waters contain raw sewage and other contaminates including dead animals, gasoline and oil, other waste products as well as disease causing organisms.  Ironically, in a rush to get a drink of water or eat food, your survival may be threatened. You could actually starve or become so weak and dehydrated due to waterborne illness or foodborne illness that you are no help to yourself or anyone else. Here are some facts about what bacterial contamination can lead to.

Symptoms A range of syndromes, including acute dehydrating diarrhea (cholera), prolonged febrile illness with abdominal symptoms (typhoid fever), acute bloody diarrhea (dysentery), and chronic diarrhea (Brainerd diarrhea).

Common Causes Common agents include Vibrio cholerae, Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, and the diarrheogenic Escherichia coli.

Risk Level Each year, an estimated 4 billion episodes of diarrhea result in an estimated 2 million deaths, mostly among children. Waterborne bacterial infections may account for as many as half of these episodes and deaths.

Consequences Many deaths among infants and young children are due to dehydration, malnutrition, or other complications of waterborne bacterial infections.

The most commonly recognized foodborne infections are those caused by the bacteria Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. coli O157:H7, and by a group of viruses called calicivirus, also known as the Norwalk and Norwalk-like viruses. 

Campylobacter is a bacterial pathogen that causes fever, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps

.  It is the most commonly identified bacterial cause of diarrheal illness in the world.  These bacteria live in the intestines of healthy birds, and most raw poultry meat has Campylobacter on it.  Eating undercooked chicken, or other food that has been contaminated with juices dripping from raw chicken is the most frequent source of this  infection. Anything from the bird population may be contained in flood waters and get on food and food packaging that have been in flood waters.

Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing Salmonella. This is a common source of foodborne illness and can threaten your survival after a disaster.

Cells of Salmonella enteritidis change
shape as they grow. This scanning
electron micrograph shows a
mixture of small cells with
filaments and very large cells
that lack filaments. Small
cells arise only during certain
growth stages and efficiently
contaminate eggs when the
time is right.
Courtesy of

Salmonella is also a bacterium that is widespread in the intestines of birds, reptiles and mammals.  The illness it causes, salmonellosis, typically includes fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps.  In persons with poor underlying health or weakened immune systems, which may result from your stamina being tested in a survival situation, it can invade the bloodstream and cause life-threatening infections. 

E. coli O157:H7 is a bacterial pathogen that comes cattle and other similar animals.  Human illness typically follows consumption of food or water that has been contaminated with microscopic amounts of cow feces. Which may be present in flood waters, concievably in great quantity depending on your location. The illness it causes is often a severe and bloody diarrhea and painful abdominal cramps, without much fever. In 3% to 5% of cases, a complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) can occur several weeks after the initial symptoms.  This severe complication includes temporary anemia, profuse bleeding, and kidney failure.

Calicivirus, or Norwalk-like virus is an extremely common cause of foodborne illness, though it is rarely diagnosed, because the laboratory test is not widely available.  It causes an acute gastrointestinal illness, usually with more vomiting than diarrhea, that resolves within

Low-temperature electron micrograph
of a cluster of E. coli bacteria. Each
individual bacterium is oblong shaped.
Courtesy of

two days.  Unlike many foodborne pathogens that have animal reservoirs, it is believed that Norwalk-like

viruses spread primarily from one infected person to another.  Infected kitchen workers or food preparers can contaminate a salad or sandwich as they prepare it, if they have the virus on their hands.  Infected fishermen have contaminated oysters as they harvested them.

This information makes it clear it is important to know when food is safe and when not to eat it and throw it away instead. This also highlights other issues such as washing your hands and cooking and kitchen surfaces when handling food.

Protecting your Food

Identify and throw away food that may not be safe to eat.

  • Throw away food that may have come in contact with flood or storm water.
  • Throw away food that has an unusual odor, color, or texture.
  • Throw away perishable foods (including meat, poultry, fish, eggs and leftovers) that have been above 40 degrees Fahrenheit (F) for 2 hours or more.
  • Never taste a food to determine its safety!
  • Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperatures. Each time the door is opened, a significant amount of cold air is lost.
  • The refrigerator will keep food cold safely for about four hours if it is unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full and the door remains closed.)
    • Thawed food that contains ice crystals or is 40 degree F or below can be refrozen or cooked.
    • Throw away canned foods that are bulging, opened, or damaged.
    • Food containers with screw-caps, snap-lids, crimped caps (soda pop bottles), twist caps, flip tops, snap-open, and home canned foods should be discarded if they have come into contact with floodwater because they cannot be disinfected.
    • If cans have come in contact with floodwater or storm water, remove the labels, wash the cans, and dip them in a solution of 1 cup of bleach (unscented only, you should keep unscented bleach available, the scented varieties are highly poisonous.) in 5 gallons of water. Relabel the cans with a marker.
    • Do not use contaminated water to wash dishes, brush your teeth, wash and prepare food, wash your hands, make ice, or make baby formula.

    Store food safely.

    • While the power is out, keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible.
    • Add block ice or dry ice to your refrigerator if the electricity is expected to be off longer than 4 hours. Wear heavy gloves when handling ice.

    Feeding Infants and Young Children

    • Breastfed infants should continue breastfeeding. For formula-fed infants, use ready-to-feed formula if possible. If using ready-to-feed formula is not possible, it is best to use bottled water to prepare powdered or concentrated formula. If bottled water is not available, use boiled water. Use treated water to prepare formula only if you do not have bottled or boiled water.
    • If you prepare formula with boiled water, let the formula cool sufficiently before giving it to an infant.
    • Clean feeding bottles and nipples with bottled, boiled, or treated water before each use.
    • Wash your hands before preparing formula and before feeding an infant. You can use alcohol-based hand sanitizer for washing your hands if the water supply is limited

    Clean and sanitize food-contact surfaces.

    CDC recommends discarding wooden cutting boards, baby bottle nipples, and pacifiers . These items cannot be properly sanitized if they have come into contact with contaminated flood waters. Clean and sanitize food-contact surfaces in a four-step process:

    1. Wash with soap and warm , clean water.
    2. Rinse with clean water.
    3. Sanitize by immersing for 1 minute in a solution of 1 teaspoon of chlorine bleach (5.25%, unscented) per gallon of clean water.
    4. Allow to air dry.

    Other Things you can do to prepare.

    Plan ahead and know where dry ice and block ice can be purchased. Be very careful with dry ice it can severely injure you if you touch it. Store food on shelves that will be safely out of the way of contaminated water in case of flooding. Have coolers on hand to keep refrigerator food cold if the power will be out for more than 4 hours. Purchase or make ice cubes and store in the freezer for use in the refrigerator or in a cooler. Group food together in the freezer—this helps the food stay cold longer.

    Use layers of news paper to insulate over food in a chest type deep freezer to keep the cold in if you have to get into the freezer.

    Prepare A Supply

    Listen to a battery or crank-powered radio or television for instructions during a disaster situation. You will need a

     battery or crank powered radio or television. Pay strict attention to instructions from emergency management and law enforcement agencies. Obey curfews and emergency orders that are issued.

    Have a 3 to 5 day supply of food on hand. Canned food that does not require cooking or MREs are good for a backup food supply after a disaster. Looting and rioting may break out after a major disaster, especially near food supplies. Be prepared ahead of time so that you aren't wandering the streets where you or your family could become the target of criminals or other desperate individuals.

    Most individuals can live along time with little food. Food is still very important to your survival. Having a survival kit and food ahead of time can greatly increase your chances of survival after a disaster. The extra comfort and less worry that results from preparation won't hurt any of us.


    More Info:

    Power Outages - Key Tips for Consumers About Food Safety

    What Consumers Need to Know About Food and Water Safety During Hurricanes, Power Outages, and Floods.

    Food Safety for Consumers Returning Home After a Hurricane and/or Flooding

    Restaurants and Grocers Reopening After Hurricanes and Flooding




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