By Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN
Cleaning up after a flood can be a time-consuming process, but don't take shortcuts in the kitchen: Your health depends on a thorough kitchen inventory and cleanup.
A little preparation will go a long way in the unfortunate event of an emergency. Stock a supply of non-perishable food and bottled water — at least three days' worth, and ideally two weeks' worth. This supply will be especially important if there's a power outage or if the public water supply becomes contaminated. Don't use contaminated water to wash food, dishes or your hands — or for making food, ice or baby formula. Read Food Safety in a Power Outage to find out more about which foods and beverages to store and how to keep them safe.
What Should You Do with Food that Comes in Contact with Flood Water?
Throw it out! Flood water contains organisms that may cause illness. If a food, food package or bottled beverage (including bottled water) has come in contact with flood water, it's contaminated and must be discarded. If the food has an unusual color, odor or texture, throw it out. If you're still unsure, throw it out. If you have to discard bottled water, know that boiling tap water kills most disease-causing organisms.
However, commercial foods in undamaged 100 percent metal cans or shelf-stable retort pouches can be rescued even if flood water has reached them. These foods can be used once the cans or pouches are properly disinfected. Here's how:
- Remove any labels, and thoroughly wash and rinse.
- Disinfect by placing in clean water, bringing to a boil, and boiling for two minutes; or dunking in a sanitizing solution of one tablespoon unscented liquid chlorine bleach per one gallon clean water for 15 minutes. Air dry.
- Re-label as needed, indicating expiration dates, and use soon.
Which Kitchen Utensils Can Be Cleaned? Which Should Be Discarded?
When you have food that's safe to eat, it's vital for it to stay that way. Make sure your hands and anything else that comes into contact with the food is clean. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer will work for your hands if access to clean water is limited. More thorough cleansing and sanitizing is required for other kitchen items contaminated by even a small amount of flood water. Some items will need to be discarded. Here's what you need to do:
- Discard any kitchen items that can't be thoroughly cleaned. This includes anything wooden or plastic, such as wooden cutting boards, wooden spoons, plastic cups and plastic utensils. Also discard baby items such as bottle nipples and pacifiers.
- Sanitize any metal or ceramic kitchen items, including metal pans, utensils and manual can openers, as well as ceramic baking dishes and dinnerware. Start by thoroughly washing these items with soap and (preferably hot) clean water, rinsing and then sanitizing by boiling in clean water or by submerging in a sanitizing solution of one tablespoon unscented liquid chlorine bleach per one gallon clean water for 15 minutes. Air dry. Follow the same process to sanitize countertops; after applying the sanitizing solution, let countertops air dry.
- Run your dishwasher (if you have one, you have power and the water is deemed safe) through three full cycles with nothing in it other than the dishwasher racks. This will help to thoroughly clean out water lines. The fourth time, run as usual to clean any kitchen items other than those which need to be discarded. If you can use a dishwasher, you don't need to follow the sanitizing steps above.
Always remember the most important rule of thumb when it comes to food safety and preventing foodborne illness: When in doubt, throw it out.
Reviewed May 2013
Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN, is a Brooklyn-based culinary nutritionist, writer, and media personality. She's author of several cookbooks and blogs at Tasteovers by Jackie.