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Eating's a risky business with water, water everywhere and no power

A resident of a Hurricane Harvey-flooded neighborhood in Houston gets evacuated. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Glenn Fawcett) A resident of a Hurricane Harvey-flooded neighborhood in Houston gets evacuated. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo by Glenn Fawcett)

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Nutrition | Emergency Preparedness and Response

It’s hurricane season. Power outages and flooding from massive storms like this year’s Harvey and Irma not only cause property damage but also threaten the food and water supply.

Emptied grocery store shelves in the days leading up to big storms are proof people prepare by buying bottled water and nonperishable foods. Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Donald Smith, a Veterinary Corps food safety officer with the Defense Health Agency, also suggests getting a food thermometer.

“If the power goes out, you can check the temperature of foods in the refrigerator to determine if they’re still safe to eat,” he said. A safe temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.

Another measure: refrigerator food is no longer safe to eat if the power’s been out four hours or more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.

Before the power goes out, Smith suggests, move food you’re not planning to eat right away from the refrigerator to the freezer. Food in a full, unopened freezer is safe for about 48 hours, according to the CDC, and it’s safe for about 24 hours in a half-full freezer.

A tip to help determine how long the power was out is particularly useful if you evacuate your home. Put a glass of water in the freezer. After the water is frozen, place a penny on top. When you return to your home, check to see if the penny is on the bottom of the glass. If it’s still on the top, you’ll know you didn’t lose power – or only lost it briefly. If it’s on the bottom, you’ll know there was a complete thaw and you need to throw out the food in the freezer.

Food kept in the refrigerator should be arranged so raw meat doesn’t wind up dripping onto other items and contaminating them, Smith said. He added that people shouldn’t eat anything with an unusual odor, color, or texture.

“Don’t taste something to try to figure out if it’s safe to eat,” Smith said. “If in doubt, throw it out.”

Even nonperishable food can be unsafe to eat when it comes into contact with floodwater, Smith and other food safety experts say. This includes home canned goods as well as food in containers with screw caps, snap lids, crimped or twist caps, or flip tops.

Canned goods that are bulging, open, rusty, punctured, or dented are also unsafe. Undamaged, all-metal cans and retort pouches (such as shelf-stable juices) can be saved after floodwater exposure by removing the labels, washing, and then sanitizing with a bleach solution or by boiling. For more information about hurricanes, flooding, and foods, visit the Food and Drug Administration website.

Water that’s unsafe to drink is also unsafe for washing dishes, brushing teeth, washing and preparing food, and making ice and baby formula. For more information on food and drinking water safety after disasters, visit the CDC website.

Army Veterinary Service personnel may be called on to conduct food safety inspections after hurricanes and other emergencies as part of the Defense Support of Civil Authorities, or DSCA, response. Teams are providing food safety assistance in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, said Dr. Kristina McElroy, and they may also be asked to assist after Hurricane Irma. Tasks include inspecting operational rations and bottled water, local and fresh market food items purchased by the DoD, and local food establishments.

McElroy, a veterinary public health officer, is the Defense Health Agency’s DSCA coordinator for veterinary services. She works with other federal agencies on disaster planning, preparedness, and response involving animal health, agriculture, and food protection.

Read about how to prepare for health care needs during severe weather. 

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