University of Vermont

Cultivating Healthy Communities

Food Safety After a Flood

After a flood has devastated your home or business, one of the many things that you need to be concerned about is food safety.

Flood water generally should be considered contaminated as it is difficult to determine what it has come in contact with on its way to your property. Water from floods can contain sewage or animal waste, particularly if the flooding occurs in an area near wastewater treatment facilities or livestock operations.

Raw sewage and animal waste are full of bacteria that can cause illness if you eat the contaminated foods. Flood waters that cover roads, vehicles or solid waste facilities or pass by manufacturing and business sites can carry heavy metals and other industrial contaminants, which also can be hazardous to human health.

If you don't know if the food was directly exposed to flood water, and if you are unsure if the food is safe for consumption, the rule of thumb is, "If in doubt, throw it out."

Any of the following food items, exposed or even possibly exposed or splashed with flood water, must not be consumed and should be tossed out:

  • Food items in your refrigerator and freezer, including raw fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, eggs and cartons of milk 
  • All foods in boxes, paper, foil or cloth, including cereal, juice and powdered milk 
  • Spices, seasonings and extracts 
  • All home-canned foods because the area under the seal of the jars and bottles cannot be properly disinfected 
  • Any food and drinks in containers with screw caps, pull tops and crimped caps, including mayonnaise and salad dressing 
  • Opened containers and packages 
  • Flour, grain, sugar, coffee and other staples in canisters 

It is possible to save undamaged, commercially prepared foods in metal cans and "retort pouches" such as flexible, shelf-stable juice or seafood pouches although these items must be thoroughly washed and disinfected. You will need to discard any damaged cans, including those with large dents, leaks, swelling, punctures, fractures or extensive deep rusting.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends the following steps for washing and disinfecting undamaged cans.

First, remove the labels, if they are the removable kind, since they can harbor dirt and bacteria. Brush or wipe away any dirt or silt. Be sure to keep track of what each item is so you can re-label them later.

Thoroughly wash the cans and retort pouches with soap and water, using hot water if it is available. Rinse with water that is safe for drinking since dirt or residual soap will reduce the effectiveness of chlorine sanitation.

Next you will need to sanitize by immersion in one of two ways. The first method is to place the items in water, allow the water to come to a boil and then continue boiling for two minutes. Or place the item in a freshly made solution of one tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water (or the cleanest, clearest water available) for 15 minutes.

Air dry cans and pouches for a minimum of one hour before opening or storing. Re-label with a marking pen as needed, including the expiration date (if known). Put this food at the front of the shelf or pantry, so you will use it first. Any concentrated baby formula in reconditioned, all-metal containers must be diluted with clean, drinking water before use.

You also will need to wash metal pans, ceramic dishes and utensils, including can openers, thoroughly with soap and water, using hot water if possible. Rinse, and then sanitize, by boiling in clean water or immersing for 15 minutes in a solution of one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water, again using the cleanest, clearest water available.

Many nonfood items that are used to prepare, serve or eat food cannot be salvaged. You need to discard any wooden and plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples, pacifiers and any other porous items.

Finally, thoroughly wash countertops with soap and water, using hot water if available. Rinse, and then sanitize, by applying the same chlorine bleach solution as used for cleaning dishes and utensils. Allow to air dry.

Floods can be devastating but knowing what food is safe to keep and what must be tossed, as well as how to properly clean and sanitize dishware and other kitchen items, will help you be prepared if and when disaster strikes.