Food and water safety

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By Megan Ferguson

Today is the third edition in Virginia Cooperative Extension’s series.

We’ve given you several tips about how to ready your family for emergencies and disasters. But maybe you still have questions about food? What type of water is safe to use? What ways can you cook when the power goes off? How long will your food stay fresh when the power goes off? We plan on answering these questions today.

The availability of prepackaged, bottled water makes the need to boil water for safety and sterility almost non-existent. However, it is very important to know how to make water safe. There are several ways to disinfect water: 1. Boil at a rolling boil for 10 minutes. 2. Add eight drops of liquid chlorine bleach (like Clorox) per gallon of water. Make sure the bleach has no active ingredient other than 4 percent to 6 percent sodium hypochlorite. 3. Add 20 drops of 2 percent iodine per gallon of clear water or 40 drops per gallon of cloudy water. 4. Add water purification tablets according to directions on the package.

These tablets can be bought at most drug and sporting goods stores. Make sure that all water that is used for washing hands, bathing, and cleaning is purified. You can use the water that is in the water pipes to drink if the valve on the main water line was turned off before a flood. Never use water that has a dark color, an odor, or has any floating material.

When the power goes out, the best and easiest way to cook is outside on a gas or charcoal grill or a camp stove. Remember, you should never use these items indoors. It could build up carbon monoxide fumes or start a fire inside your home.

If you have access to a generator you will be able to use small appliances. Some homes have fireplaces and wood stoves. These can be used for cooking as well. Building a fire outside is also an option. Make sure that you build any fire far enough from buildings so that the ashes are not blown onto the roofs and start fires. Wood fires can be built inside of metal drums or charcoal grills. When building a fire in a pit use stones as a barrier. Never use gasoline to start a wood or charcoal fire. When you cannot find a means to cook, you still have options. Many canned items do not need to be cooked, and can be eaten cold.

When dealing with food during a disaster, there are many different things to consider.

First, what foods should you use at these times? Perishable refrigerated foods (items that have come from an animal) should be thrown out after a six hour period. Non-perishable items, such as dry goods and canned goods are best. However, if your home has been flooded and these items were touched by the flood waters that are contaminated, they are no longer safe and must be thrown out. Throw out items such as fresh fruits and vegetables, foods in cardboard or paper cartons, foods in bags such as rice and flour, liquids in containers with crown-capped bottles or pull-tops, corks or screw caps (This includes foods in glass jars, store bought or canned at home.)

If a can has not been in flood water contaminated by industrial waste, and does not have bulges or leaks, it can be used. These cans must be disinfected with soap before you open them. The rule when dealing with food items and safety is, WHEN IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT. Yes, it does seem wasteful, but the safety and health of your family is much more important. When cooking, remember that canned items have liquids. These liquids can be used for cooking or juice drinks.

Frozen foods can present challenges when the power goes out. Here are some tips to help you sort through your frozen items and know what to keep and what to get rid of.

Food that has thawed and warmed up to temperatures above 40 F must either be cooked and eaten or discarded. If food is partially thawed but still has ice crystals, it can be refrozen. If food has not reached temperatures higher than 40 F it can be refrozen. Throw away all stuffed poultry.

If frozen dinners have thawed, do not refreeze them; they need to be thrown away. If your meat has an odor it needs to be thrown away. Also, if the temperature of your meat has reached 40 F for two hours it should be thrown away. You can refreeze food after you have cooked it. Keep your refrigerator and freezer doors closed. This will ensure that the temperature inside will not change drastically in a short amount of time (depending on the temperature outside). Having a large, well insulated freezer as well as keeping it mostly full will also ensure that the temperature will not change drastically. Dry ice can be used. However, do not handle it with bare hands because it will cause burns.

Hopefully this has answered questions you might have had about your food during an emergency. Always remember the key rule: WHEN IN DOUBT, THROW IT OUT. If you have any further questions contact us at Virginia Cooperative Extension in Bedford by phone, 540-586-7675, or email, www.ext.vt.edu/offices/bedford.