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Food safety after a flood


Curt Wohleber
University of Missouri Extension
Phone: 573-882-5409

Published: Friday, April 29, 2011

Story source:

Phyllis Flanigan, 573-686-8064

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo.—Food contamination is often a problem after a flood because floodwaters can carry silt, raw sewage, oil or chemical wastes, says a University of Missouri Extension specialist.

“Filth and disease-causing bacteria can contaminate any food the water contacts and make that food unsafe to eat,” said Phyllis Flanigan, MU Extension human development specialist and county program director for Butler and Ripley counties.

“You will need to discard all food and any garden produce,” she said. “You will also want to disinfect your kitchen utensils and cookware, and clean and disinfect all surfaces in the kitchen just like other parts of the home.”

When in doubt, throw it out

These foods are not safe if they have been exposed to floodwaters, even if they seem dry:

-Any unpackaged foods. Pitch all flooded meats, fish, poultry, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

-Foods packed in foil, cellophane, paper, cloth, cardboard, crown-capped bottles, and glass or plastic jars. Also discard home-canned foods. You can sterilize the empty jars and rings, and discard the flats.

-Garden produce. Don’t try to disinfect, save or preserve the crops – not even the root crops. “Experts say that if plants survive, the new produce that grows after the floodwaters have receded is safe to eat,” Flanigan said. “It will take about a month for gardens to become clean.”

-Cans that are bulging or damaged.

Clean and disinfect

“Use only foods that are sealed in airtight metal cans,” Flanigan said. “But don’t open them until you sanitize the cans.” Remove labels and mark the contents on the cans with a permanent marker. Wash cans in a strong detergent solution. Use a scrub brush to remove all the dirt.

You can sanitize by two methods. The first method is to put the cans in a bleach solution for two minutes. Use one tablespoon unscented chlorine bleach for every gallon of water. The second method is to place cans in boiling water for 10 minutes then air-dry the cans.

Disinfect kitchen utensils and cookware. “Wash all pots, pans, china, glass dishes and cups that have been covered by floodwaters with hot, soapy, disinfected water,” Flanigan said.

To disinfect or purify water, boil it vigorously for three minutes or add unscented chlorine bleach (half a teaspoon per two-and-a-half gallons of water), or even add 12 drops of tincture of iodine per gallon of water. Use a brush to remove all the dirt, rinse in disinfected water and air-dry.

Throw away all dishes with deep cracks. Plastic cookware, utensils, plates, dishes, cups, and wooden utensils and bowls cannot be disinfected. Get rid of them. Plastic baby bottles, nipples and storage containers must also be pitched.

Any piece of equipment that can be taken apart should be cleaned in pieces. Dip in a sanitizing bleach solution and rinse in disinfected water.

Kitchen utensils made of iron will rust. You can remove rust by scouring with steel wool. Then sterilize with a bleach solution and season by applying a coat of cooking oil and place in a 350-degree oven for about an hour.

When cleaning and disinfecting, be sure to frequently wash exposed skin in purified water. Wear rubber gloves for extra protection. As floodwaters recede, use a disinfectant to clean walls and woodwork from top to bottom. One cup of unscented chlorine bleach per gallon of water can be used as a disinfectant. “Be careful not to mix bleach with ammonia to avoid harmful fumes,” Flanigan said.


MU Extension has a step-by-step guide to cleaning flood-damaged homes. The free publication covers electrical systems; repairing walls; cleaning furniture, flooring and floor coverings, bedding, and kitchen items; and controlling mold and mildew. The guide also contains financial advice, including filing insurance claims, avoiding fraud and hiring a contractor.

Copies of “Resources for Your Flooded Home” are available at MU Extension offices, disaster recovery centers and online at