Food Safety Rules for Floods and Power Outages

By Jolyn Johnston-Myers
April 28, 2016

With stormy weather comes the possibility of floods and power outages. As bad as those things can be by themselves, something not always thought about when bad weather happens is what to do with your food that has been left in the refrigerator or freezer during a power outage or what to do with food that may have been exposed to flood waters.

K-State Research and Extension food safety specialist Londa Nwadike talked about the risk of what we can't see that might be in our food if it's come into contact with flood water.

“It could have all sorts of microbial contaminants,” said Nwadike. “It could have heavy metals, it could have pesticide residues, it could have car battery residues... we just don't know what's in the flood water, so it's better to be safe rather than sorry.”

It may be expensive to throw out food, but Nwadike says that if you're not sure whether or not your food – and even other personal items – came into contact with flood water, it's simply safer to throw them out.

“You can't put a price on sickness,” Nwadike said. “Or you can't put a price on somebody having even longer-term effects from eating contaminated food or having food that was contaminated by a flood. Once you throw it away then you can just forget about it; it's gone and then start over from there.”

How long does refrigerated and frozen food stay safe once the power goes out? For refrigerated food, Nwadike said it's just a matter of hours.

“If you keep the door closed, it will stay cold a lot longer,” she explained logically. “So usually we say about four hours would be okay. If it gets longer than four hours you really have to be careful.

“If you have a full freezer, you're able to keep that cold without power for up to 48 hours.”

However, if your freezer is only half-full it will generally stay cold for just 24 hours.

More information on flood and food safety is available at K-State county and district Extension offices. Also, don't forget that if food is lost for a storm-related reason, the loss may be covered by renters or homeowners insurance and it's a good idea to take an inventory and/or a picture of the items before throwing them out.