Food safety in emergencies

Fires, floods, cyclones and power outages

Floods, fires and storms can leave you without electricity for your fridge, gas for cooking and water for cleaning and also expose your food to contaminants. Be prepared with this emergency food safety advice.

Plan ahead

Where possible prepare by having food on hand that doesn’t need refrigeration or heating. Foods with a long shelf life such as long life milk, bottled water or boiled water in a clean, sealed container and canned or dried goods should be part of an emergency food supply. Keep a manual can opener handy as well as a meat and fridge thermometer available to check temperatures.

If needed ensure there will be enough ready-to-use formula for infants and food for pets. If items have a use-by date, make sure you replace them periodically to keep them within these dates. See also The Pantry List for essential items you need to prestock.

Have a BBQ with a good supply of heat beads or bottled gas available for cooking.

In areas that could be affected by a flood, plan to store food well above floodwater levels.

Have coolers available and ice bricks or gel packs ready frozen to keep food cold if the power will be out.

Keep it clean! It’s critical to practice basic hygiene

Wash and dry your hands thoroughly with soap using clean, drinking-quality water see how. Do this before preparing food or eating, after toilet use, after clean-up activities and after handling articles that might be contaminated with dangerous chemicals, floodwater or sewage. Use alcohol-based hand sanitiser to wash hands if the supply of drinking-quality water is limited.

When the power goes off

Modern refrigeration systems maintain food at safe temperatures. This helps reduce the growth of bacteria on your food which can lead to food poisoning. When there is a power outage you need to take extra measures to reduce the risk of food-related illness.

It is important to record the time the power went off. When a power cut is ongoing (that is, it lasts for more than 4 hours and there is no immediate likelihood of reconnection) food safety becomes an important issue.

Unless cold storage is available within 2 hours of a power cut, all potentially hazardous foods such as meat, poultry, seafood and ready-to-eat perishable food) that are stored in refrigerators or chillers need to be:

  • placed in alternative cold storage, for example coolers with ice or ice bricks, or into the fridges of family and friend’s
  • eaten immediately
  • if you have a fridge thermometer and have recorded the time the power went off, eaten immediately or thrown away if the temperature rises to above 5 degrees for over 2 hours
  • if you don’t have a fridge thermometer and another cold storage area is not immediately available after 2 hours.

Time and temperature are the most important measurements used to determine whether food needs to be regarded as potentially unsafe.

The ‘4 hour/2 hour rule’ for safe storage of food

The following actions are recommended for any potentially hazardous food that has been at temperatures between 5 °C and 60 °C for a total of:

  • less than 2 hours – refrigerate or use immediately
  • longer than 2 hours but less than 4 hours – use immediately
  • 4 hours or longer – must be thrown out.

Make a note of the time the power went off. If available, use a watch and a thermometer to follow these time and temperature recommendations. Eat perishable foods first and save the dried and canned food until last.

The advice offered here refers to any or all potentially hazardous food except those normally kept at room temperature or jams, pickles and other acid foods.

Important note: If you are unsure about the time that has passed or the temperature your food has been stored at then throwing the food out is the safest option.

Planned power cuts

The day or night before power is cut off, prepare in advance to store your food safely:

  • If possible, try to organise alternative refrigerated storage in advance, for example with relatives, friends or neighbours.
  • Avoid buying food that needs to be frozen or refrigerated until after the power is restored
  • Adjust the refrigerator to its coldest setting and remove fresh fruit and vegetables to prevent them being damaged. These items can be stored at room temperature
  • Set your freezer to its coldest setting
  • Place ice bricks, or freeze large blocks of ice, in the freezer for later use
  • If you can, freeze some of the items from your fridge for later use. This is a very safe option and is best done well before the power cut

Sudden or unplanned power cuts

A sudden or unplanned power cut will not allow much time for you to safely store your foods. Your food will remain safe in your refrigerator for 2 hours, but there are some steps you can take:

  • If you have sufficient space in the freezer, after 2 hours you should remove foods from the fridge. Place them in the freezer or esky with ice bricks.
  • Do not open the freezer door unless necessary, as this will reduce the time the contents will remain frozen.
  • If your freezer is efficient, and its door seals are in good condition, it can maintain foods in a frozen state for between 1 and 2 and a half days.
  • Relatives, friends or neighbours may be able to provide alternative storage.

During power cuts

Food stored in refrigerators

Your food will remain safe in your refrigerator for 2 hours. If it has been more than 4 hours, throw the food out. Don’t open the fridge door during the power cut, unless necessary.

The best option is to keep the refrigerated foods as cold as possible by not opening the door unless necessary to remove food to eat or check the temperature after 2 hours. or place items in the freezer. If this is not possible:

  • Remove ice bricks from the freezer and place in an esky.
  • Remove all meats, poultry, dairy and potentially hazardous food (for example dips, pâté, ham, prepared and cooked food) from the refrigerator and place in an cooler with frozen bricks or gel packs.
  • Salted butter, margarine and hard cheeses will remain safe at room temperature.
  • Place the ice or ice bricks throughout the stored food to ensure an even temperature. Make sure the lid of the cooler has a good seal.
  • If the temperature of the food stored in an cooler or refrigerator reaches more than 5 °C for less than 2 hours you should find alternative refrigeration at less than 5 °C or, if possible, freeze or use immediately.
  • Food stored in a refrigerator or esky at more than 5 °C for 4 hours or more should be thrown out.

Food stored in freezers

  • Freezers that are in good condition and operate at minus 15 °C or below can keep foods at safe temperatures for between 1 and 2 days. If the freezer door is kept shut, a full freezer can keep food chilled for up to 48 hours, while a half full freezer can be kept food chilled for 24 hours.
  • It is important that the doors of freezers are not opened unless necessary. Opening and closing the doors will reduce the time the contents will remain at safe temperatures.
  • Foods that have partly defrosted or defrosted but remain very cold (5 °C or less) can be refrozen.  Remember that some food types, for example ice cream which will thaw other foods defrost. Although there is no safety issue, some foods become icy or their texture will be damaged when refrozen and may not be usable after defrosting and refreezing.

Note that while there will not be a food safety issue in refreezing defrosted foods, the quality of the food may be slighted deteriorated. You have 2 options for food that has been stored in a freezer where the temperature has reached more than 5 °C for up to 2 hours:

  • Find alternative refrigeration at less than 5 °C or refreeze
  • Consume immediately.

If your food has been in a freezer where the temperature has reached more than 5 °C for more than 2 hours, but less than 4 hours, it should be consumed immediately.

Food stored in a freezer for more than 4 hours at more than 5 °C should be thrown out.

Food in the process of being cooked

Throw out food that was being cooked when the power failed if cooking cannot be completed properly within 2 hours. If food is already properly cooked, eat it within 2 hours or throw it out.

Floods

Floodwater can be contaminated with sewage, agricultural and industrial waste, and other substances that can cause illness.

There is a danger that any food, surfaces and cooking utensils that have come into contact with floodwater might be contaminated.

Spills and sewage discharges can also contaminate water supplies and food gardens.

Throw out food that might not be safe to eat

Follow these steps:

  • Throw out food that has come into contact with floodwater or has an unusual odour, colour or texture. Do not taste or cook it.
  • Check canned and unopened bottled food and throw out any cans that are dented, swollen or damaged. Some cans and bottled products might be salvageable. For cans that appear useable:
    • remove the label and thoroughly wash the outside of the can with drinking-quality water
    • sanitise the can in bleach (check the bleach container label for the concentration of bleach recommended) for 1 minute, then rinse in drinking-quality water
    • re-label the can with a waterproof pen
  • Vegetable gardens can take a month to become suitable for harvest after flood or sewage discharge. Discard all leafy green produce or damaged vine or dropped tree fruits. After 1 month, wash other vegetables then sanitise in a weak bleach solution of 1 tablespoons bleach to 2 litres of water. Then rinse in drinking-quality water, peel and use. Monitor announcements and consult local authorities after other sorts of contamination.

If in doubt throw it out.

Clean and sanitise surfaces and food utensils

Follow these steps:

  • Carefully check dishes, pots, pans, cutlery and kitchen equipment that might have been in contact with floodwater. Throw away damaged or cracked items, items made from porous material such as wood, plastic or rubber including wooden chopping boards as they cannot be adequately sanitised.
  • Wash utensils and surfaces in hot, soapy, drinking-quality water. Take apart and clean the non-electrical pieces of any kitchen equipment that can be safety taken apart and then rinse in clean, hot water.
  • Sanitise silverware, metal utensils, pots, pans and kitchen equipment in pieces by boiling in water for 10 minutes. Sanitise dishes by immersing glass, porcelain, china and enamel-ware for 10 minutes in a disinfecting solution of 1 tablespoon of chlorine bleach per 2 litres of warm water. Then rinse. Clean cupboards and counters with hot soapy water then rinse with a chlorine bleach solution before storing dishes or food.
  • Air dry items because towels might have been splashed with contaminated water.

Commercial and most domestic dishwashers are capable of sanitising all eating and cooking utensils as part of their normal cycle.

Water for drinking

In an emergency such as a flood or contamination event, tap water and private water supplies such as from tanks, wells and bores sometimes might not be safe to drink and use for cooking and cleaning.

Monitor public announcements and those from the local water supplier to know if tap water is safe to use.

Private water supplies should be tested before using again – contact your council.

If the water is unsafe:

  • use only bottled, boiled or treated water – in that order of preference – for drinking, cooking or preparing food, washing utensils and surfaces, brushing teeth, hand washing, making ice, and bathing
  • only treat contaminated water if no drinking-quality water can be obtained:
  • filter cloudy water through a clean cloth or allow it to settle, then pour off the clear water for boiling. Boil the water vigorously for 1 minute then leave it to cool and store in a clean, covered container. Boiling will ensure water safe from most types of harmful bugs but will not remove chemical contaminants
  • only if water cannot be boiled, treat it with chlorine or iodine tablets. Follow the directions that come with the tablets. This might not kill all bugs and will not remove any chemical contaminants.

Thoroughly clean any containers used to store water with hot soapy drinking-quality water, then rinse with a bleach solution before use.

After a fire

One of the dangers of a fire can be toxic fumes from burning materials.

Chemicals used to fight the fire can also contain toxic materials.

The heat from a fire can cause bacteria in food to multiply and grow so:

  • throw out any food that has been near a fire, including food in cans and jars even if it appears okay
  • any raw food, or food in packaging such as cardboard, plastic wrap, screw-topped jars and bottles should also be thrown out
  • throw out food from a refrigerator as the refrigerator seal isn’t airtight, fumes can get inside
  • wash cooking utensils exposed to fire-fighting chemicals in soapy hot water, then sanitise in 1 tablespoon of chlorine bleach per 2 litres of water and rinse.

Disposal of food

When you dispose of food, wrap it in newspaper and place in the rubbish bin. A small volume of food may be safely buried.

Where larger quantities have to be disposed of your local government’s environmental health officer should be contacted. Without correct disposal, fly breeding, animal and pest scavenging may result and increase the risk of the spread of infectious diseases.

More information

You can find more advice for consumers and food businesses about food safety during fires, floods and power cuts at:

Emergency Management Australia has developed a Pantry List to help you stock up for an emergency.

Thanks for the information provided with permission from WA Health and the NSW Food Authority.

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