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Flood food safety stressed with more rain coming from Harvey

Rain, storm surges and flooding are expected to continue through the weekend, with Hurricane Harvey expected to make a second landfall today. The Texas tropical cyclone rainfall record appeared to have been broken Tuesday when a rain gauge east of Highlands, TX, reported 51.88 inches of rain as of 3 p.m. CDT. The suburb is about 15 miles east of the heart of Houston. Map courtesy of NOAA

With wind and rain from Hurricane Harvey expected to continue through the end of the week, public health officials renewed their messages about the dangers of floodwater and other food safety hazards Tuesday.

Federal, state and local agencies are working to ensure that displaced residents have adequate, and safe, food supplies, but widespread power outages are complicating their efforts.

The majority of refrigerated food spoiled days ago. Meat, poultry and dairy foods should not be eaten is they’ve been above 40 degrees F for two hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.

But beyond refrigeration, food needs to be kept safe from flood waters, which can render food inedible. Chemicals, sewage and many harmful bacteria and viruses are present in floodwater, which contaminates everything it touches, leaving deadly residue after it recedes.

According to information from FDA in “Food and Water Safety During Power Outages and Floods,” people should not to eat any food that may have come into contact with flood water. Any food that floodwater has touched should be thrown away, even if it was sealed in plastic. Microscopic tears or cracks in the plastic can allow bacteria and viruses in without being visible to the naked eye. Canned food can be safe to eat, if seals are in tact and there are no punctures or openings. Bulging cans should be thrown away.

The FDA also warns that flood-affected crops should not be harvested for consumption. The FDA reports that if the edible portion of a crop is exposed to flood waters, it is considered adulterated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and should not enter human food channels.

“There is no practical method of reconditioning the edible portion of a crop that will provide a reasonable assurance of human food safety. Therefore, the FDA recommends that these crops be disposed of in a manner that ensures they are kept separate from crops that have not been flood damaged to avoid adulterating ‘clean’ crops,” according to the agency’s flood safety page.

This applies to all food crops, including but not limited to:

  • Surface crops such as leafy greens, tomatoes, string beans, berries, and corn;
  • Underground crops, such as peanuts, potatoes, carrots, and garlic;
  • Crops with a hard outer skin or shell, such as watermelon and winter squash; and
  • Grains, nuts, corns, and similar products stored in bulk.

For information about how to secure safe water during emergencies, please click on the image. Photo courtesy of CDC

The FDA also warns about dangers for instances when floodwaters do not contact the edible portions of the crops, including the need for the assessment of flood waters, type of crop and stage of growth, likihood for crops to absorb or interbalize potential contaminants from flood waters and/or flooded soil, the degree and duration of crop exposure to flood waters, and testing.

Emergency physician Dr. Robert Glatter from New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital told CBS News that “floodwater harbors bacteria, different viruses and fungi, all of which can make people sick.”

Along with Hepatitis A, and typhoid fever, cholera is a food safety concern for those in  the hurricane’s aftermath. Cholera causes severe diarrhea, and can spread when water is infected with feces and ingested by others drinking the water or consuming food that has come in contact with the water.

If water supply does become compromised from the flooding, only bottled water should be used for drinking, brushing teeth.

Food safety isn’t always about food
Hard surfaces that have come in contact with floodwater, including walls, floors, stoves and countertops should be thoroughly disinfected to reduce the chances of cross-contaminating food.

Rubber gloves should be worn to prevent infection while cleaning and all dishes and cookware should be thoroughly washed even if they weren’t in floodwater. Items in  cabinets or on shelves can become contaminated with splashing water or some microscopic pathogens that can become airborne.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend using diluted bleach should to clean mold from hard surfaces. Additional tips from CDC include:

  • 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. When in doubt, throw it out;
  • Throw away perishable foods, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs and leftovers in your refrigerator when the power has been off for four hours or more;
  • Partly thawed food that contains ice crystals can be refrozen or cooked. Freezers, if left unopened and full, usually keep food safe for 48 hours (24 hours if half full);
  • 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 in 5 gallons of water. Re-label the cans with a marker. Include the expiration date; and
  • Do not use contaminated water to wash dishes, brush your teeth, wash or prepare food, wash your hands, make ice, or make baby formula.

For more disaster food and water safety information, consumers can visit the CDC website for details regarding the following information:

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