Emergency & Post-Disaster Food Safety and Sanitation

Did you know that a flood, fire, national disaster, or the loss of power from high winds, snow, or ice could jeopardize the safety of your food? Knowing how to determine if food is safe and how to keep food safe will help minimize the potential loss of food and reduce the risk of foodborne illness.

Food Storage During an Emergency – What Do I Need?

  • One or more coolers. Inexpensive styrofoam coolers can do an excellent job.
  • Shelf-stable foods, such as canned goods and powdered or boxed milk. These can be eaten cold or heated on the grill.
  • A digital quick-response thermometer. A digital thermometer should be a necessity in your kitchen anyway. With these thermometers you can quickly check the internal temperatures of food for doneness and safety.

Food Safety in Your Home During an Emergency –  What Should I Do?

Power outages of any length can be frustrating and troublesome, and prolonged ones can also be dangerous. When your refrigerator goes out, special food safety measures must be taken.

Perishable foods including milk, meat and eggs should not be stored above 40 degrees for more than 2 hours. If a power outage is 2 hours or less, you don’t need to be concerned, but you should know how to save your food when the refrigerator is out for longer periods of time.

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  • Do not open the refrigerator or freezer. Tell your little ones not to open the door. An unopened refrigerator will keep foods cold enough for a couple of hours at least. A freezer that is half full will hold for up to 24 hours and a full freezer for 48 hours. Instead, eat shelf-stable foods.
  • If it looks like the power outage will be for more than 2-4 hours, pack the important items in your refrigerator, such as milk, dairy products, meats, fish, poultry, eggs, and left-overs into your cooler surrounded by ice. Keep temperature at or below 40 degrees. Throw away any items that have been exposed to temperatures greater than 40 degrees for more than two hours.
  • If it looks like the power outage will be prolonged beyond a day or so, prepare another cooler with ice for the items in your freezer.

Proper Food Safety and Sanitation Handling Guidelines

Proper food safety and sanitation handling guidelines are necessary during or after a disaster will reduce the possibility of food contamination and disease.

Raw Foods

  • Do not use beef if it has an odor or is slimy to the touch.
  • Do not use pork if it has an odor where the inner flesh meets the inner bone.
  • Do not use fish if there is an odor, if it has gray or greenish gills or sunken eyes.
  • Do not use fruits and vegetables that have come into contact with flood waters, water or chemicals from extinguishing a fire, airborne chemicals or putrid air from an industrial accident as in an ammonia leak in a refrigerating unit.

Processed Foods

  • Cans should be inspected for spoilage before opening. Inspect cans for spoilage by determining if the can is swelled on the top or bottom, has dents along the seams, if the contents have an odor, foam, milkiness of juice, or leaks. Do not taste any suspected product to determine safety of the food.
  • Leftover food, not refrigerated below 41°F for greater than four hours should be considered spoiled or unsafe and should be denatured and discarded.

Cooking or Processing Foods

  • Safe potable water must be available and used for cooking, dishwashing, drinking and maintaining personal hygiene. Safe water means commercially packaged water, water from individual wells that has been tested by Houston Health and Human Services Department laboratory, or water supplied through the City lines certified as safe.
  • Menus at food establishments that are open after a disaster should be simple and require minimal handling. For example, soups, canned meats and beans, canned vegetables, dehydrated potato products, canned juices, powdered milk, canned fruits, packaged cookies, crackers, breads, etc.


  • Foods intended to be cooked or heated should be heated to a minimum of 140°F. If food is to be reheated, it must be reheated rapidly to a minimum of 165°F.
  • Perishable or potentially hazardous food should be stored at 41°F or below.


  • There is only one way to be sure dishes and utensils are clean. They must be washed, rinsed and sanitized in safe potable water. Sanitization is very important during and after a disaster. Effective sanitization can be obtained by adding 1 ounce of chlorine to each gallon of safe potable cool water. Wash dishes and utensils with soap and water first, rinse with clean water and sanitize with the bleach water.
  • Do not forget to store clean utensils in a clean place after washing, to be protected from recontamination.
  • Food dishes and utensils should be guarded against chemical exposure or contamination.
  • The use of single service items is encouraged to reduce the possibility of food borne illness. Paper plates and cups, plastic knives and forks that are used only once are highly recommended.

Insects and Rodents

After a disaster, insect and rodent activity usually increases. Doors and windows should have adequate protection to exclude insects and rodents.

Before the Next Disaster Strikes

Prepare a Disaster Survival Kit – Browse Disaster Kits here

There are many things you can do to minimize the impact on your health before disaster strikes. Put together an emergency food survival kit. Do it now and make sure you include the following items to last at least three days:

  • canned and/or dried food – luncheon meat, ham, fish, fruits, vegetables, cereals, tea, coffee, powdered soup, salt, sugar, sweets, biscuits, a can opener
  • a portable gas cooker or barbeque to cook on
  • eating equipment – utensils, knives, pots, cups, plates, bowls, matches, lighters
  • bottled water – 3 pints per person per day, or 6 to 8 large plastic soft-drink bottles of water per person per day
  • bottled water – 1 pint for washing food and cooking each meal, washing dishes and washing yourself
  • milk powder

Check and renew food and water every year, taking into account medical or dietary conditions in your family. If you have babies or children, make sure they have enough suitable food.

If you live in a flood-prone area, keep your food survival kit above the likely reach of flood water.

Disaster Food Safety Resources

Red Cross Food Safety Resources